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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oh Be Careful Little Feet, Where You Go!

This verse of an old Sunday School song is full of significance in India today.

First of all, beware of stepping on a gonguli purugu, 'woolly worm,' whose cute fuzzy hairs behave more like porcupine quills.  A friend told me her gardener saved their son (children do like to pick things up!) a great deal of pain by rubbing the son's finger on his (the gardener's) oily hair, as a palliative for the stinging reward  the child received for picking up the worm..  On another occasion, our own adult son brushed his foot against a woolly worm, earning a painfully swollen ankle requiring an antibiotic to heal.  These black worm-like caterpillars like to live in the drumstick  tree, so be careful when you walk  nearby!  (Drumsticks are
aptly named vegetable pods which are good when cut, cooked and eaten in the manner of peapods, their flesh and seeds stripped off between the teeth.)

And then, sad to say, some people like to spit. Mostly men.  On the street and in heavily travelled public places.  Look, if it bothers you, before you walk. It bothers a great  many people here, and you will see signs advising against the practice. Then there are the guys who'll just open their fly and water the side of the road,
in town or in the country.  Usually well to side of the road, but in plain sight, many grown men still find it acceptable to relieve themselves any time they feel like it.  Sometimes with briefcases by their side.  But it would be best to remember another verse of this song, "Oh be careful little eyes what you see."  Especially if you are a woman.

Besides active yet surprisingly fluid traffic patterns, streets and roads present unexpected challenges like  rocks and chunks of debris, or dips and potholes, not to mention sleeping dogs, wandering chickens or cows, and, in shopping areas, innumerable roadside vendors, including tire, or shoe, repairmen, fruit sellers, and the ironer busy at his cart, even a maverick worship site: rock, tree, or shrines.  Constant road construction and improvement these days are signs of India's progress, but present obstacle courses for walkers, riders, and drivers alike.  Dank open drains remaining in use along many roads lend their gray-green 'fragrance' to that of  exhaust and dust; sudden rains can send their sullen brackish shine flooding over low lying intersections and properties, leaving pedestrians no choice but to wade through it on their ways home from shopping, work, or the market, while cyclists, auto rickshaws, cars and trucks go on their merry ways. (Shades of Rudyard Kipling!  Did you know that, as a young man, he wrote for a newspaper his father ran, in India? The "great, gray-green, greasy Limpopo river"  of 'The Elephant's Child' story in JUST SO STORIES takes on new meaning as I look over this paragraph...!)

Wood being in short supply, homes are usually made of brick and stone; in the past, black slate was the flooring of preference, while tile and marble floors are becoming more and more common.  But beware:  The practice is to sweep. and then swab the floor with disinfectant every day. Consequently, the floors are slippery; new hotels polish their marble or granite floors to a mirror-like shine. Shops and public venues are usually steps above the street, and the newer ones have stairs as treacherously shiny as the floors.  Good reasons to go slow, as well as watch your step!

And India has a lexicon of manners relating to the feet.  Feet being the lowest part of the body, this status
conscious society considers them of low social value as well.  You must never, ever, touch anyone or point at anything with your feet, nor sit with your feet extended toward anyone.  If, say, in a crowded railway car or movie theater, your foot inadvertently touches another's, it is expected you will bend and touch your hand to your heart or reach both hands in the direction of the other's feet, in apology.

Doffing footwear at the door of homes and places of worship is usually expected, indeed you might be asked to take yours off, if you don't think of it yourself when you see the assortment of footwear near the door.  If
you have reason to keep them on, you apologize and ask if it is all right, and will usually be excused.  Some of the more frequented national monuments or places of worship may provide shoe covers.

Back to the matter of reaching toward another's feet:  It is a sign of deep respect (sometimes overdone by political followers!), to reach toward, if not actually touch the feet of a respected or revered person, or a those of a religious idol..  It is a part of the Hindu wedding ritual for the couple to touch the feet of the parents after the ceremony, and again upon their first visit or visits to the parental home after marriage.  The person receiving the respect will usually acknowledge it with at least a nod, or even lean forward to lift, or even prevent the gesturing one, from bowing.  Respect I can understand, but somehow, even before entering this culture, I have associated touching the feet only with the degree of honor we owe to God. While I understand it, I find it difficult to accept the gesture when extended to myself.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Snoozing in Singapore

January 12-13, 2013, A Second Overnight Transit Through Singapore, En route from the Week in Indonesia, Now On My Way to India

After starting from home barely over an unrelated stomach problem, the past week's multiple changes in diet and water prove challenging.  I am again tired, dehydrated, and just a little bit worried, by the time I reach Singapore.  This time I need a more thorough rest than curling up in a public transit lounge area, adequate as it had seemed my last time through Changi Airport.  I. head instead for the Ambassador Transit Lounge, where I make myself a a piece of toast at the serve-yourself-round-the-clock buffet, and rent a sleeping cubicle for the night.

Determined to sit upright until sound sleep overcomes my tension, I survey the cool, dim napping cubicle for which I have just pre-paid ten dollars an hour.  Barely triple the size of the single bed that occupies one corner, the room is furnished only as sparsely as a traveller's nap requires.  On the freshly-changed bed, a gray-green coverlet in a vague pattern of black dots and waves.  On the wall, a full-length mirror in a multi-grooved, faux mahogany frame with sun-and-ray-grooved triangles securing the corners of a bevelled mirror.  A low, faux, grooved edge mahogany shelf, sturdy enough to hold two suitcases, occupies the corner next to the mirror.  Two large scratches atop the shelf bear mute witness to other suitcases that have come and gone before mine.  

A small, rectangular, black waste basket, dutifully lined with a fresh plastic bag, stands between the table and the door, or, rather, where a door should, the opening hung with a heavy black curtain embroidered in rows of cream colored circles and squares punctuated with smaller round and square dots, a design with the potential to lull a drowsy person to sleep, or prompt a  queasy passenger to drop her gaze to the carpet, where a repetitive pattern of narrow computer-generated stripes completes the decor.  

The cubicle has black walls, two of fine stucco, two covered with basket-weave-textured paper.  Three of the walls sport faux cherry wood baseboards bearing more tell-tale scratches and scuffs.  Bed, mirror and table are lined up along one wall, lending a false sense of spaciousness to the bare side of the cubicle.  A dimmer switch controls a diminutive, black-shaded lamp on the wall over the suitcase table.  A tiny green ceiling light, signalling my occupancy of this, cubicle number three, joins a green exit sign in the hall in lending a faint glow to the grey ceiling above partitions separating this and a half-dozen similar cubicles along a dark corridor.  The greenish glow makes a tiny, burnt out night light, low on the wall next to the bed, irrelevant.  

As sleep overtakes my  inventory; I draw in a long breath, blink deeply, exhale, and allow my shoulders to droop.  I dim the wall light to nothing at all, let my comfortable but clumsy travel shoes drop beside the bed, tuck my bulging purse between a wall and the cool, beckoning pillow, and fall into a dreamless sleep to which even the ambient hum of the airport becomes irrelevant.  Though brighter light startles me as I walk out past the reception desk to attend to a midnight call of nature, I return to sleep soundly until an attendant moves the door-curtain aside to wake me with a gentle, prearranged,  "Wake up call!" at five-thirty in the morning.  I am refreshed.

Though the reception staff suggests it would be more convenient to reserve and check in at thee Changi Ambassador Transit HOTEL across the third level balcony from the LOUNGE, the lounge offers me all the services I need in one location.  Though the lounge itself, a shower (very clean, convenient, with soap, towels, and even hair dryer provided), napping and exercise rooms are offered 'a la cart,' a lounge i.d. sticker apparently allows me to come and go during the day, availing of the peaceful lounge ambience, with comfortable seating, ongoing buffet (enough choices to satisfy) and free uninterrupted use of a computer.  Though there are two other terminals, each with  similar places to stay, shop, eat, and wander (one even has a butterfly garden), today's experience is just what the doctor would've ordered.  

You can google Changi Airport's website to browse pictures and find out more about the many areas, activities, shops, and services they offer...truly a city within a city.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Indonesia III

One Sunday I attend church with my hosts, at an interdenominational church service attended by many faculty and staff of Satya Wacana.  This morning the pastor, visiting preacher, and music director, who smoothly conducts the congregational singing of the liturgy as well as the choir, are all women. The congregation sings heartily, the hymns, all in Indonesian, sound heartfelt.  During the sermon, which I cannot follow, I challenge myself to notice idiosyncracies of Indonesian speech.  There is elision.  Short e is sounded as a soft 'uh,' and v's are tantamount to f.  Elders take up two separately designated offerings, in blue velvet bags hanging from double-handled wooden circles which the we pass to each other along the pew.  After the service, everybody shakes hands with everyone else, as is their custom. We pour out into the morning sunshine.  Cheerful conversations and more handshakes follow.  We go out for lunch.

In addition to the fresh air, breathtaking views, and convivial conversations, my Indonesian week includes
dining out at several local restaurants.  One day there is Kula Arum, a secluded, overgrown greenery-hidden, vintage looking building, which is actually a large, well-appointed, open-walled, marble floored pavillion made to look older than it really is.  Another day there is an nondescript looking building that turns out to be a series of dining rooms of various sizes, interspersed with dividers and copious plants, and tended to by a bumptious American woman who greets Rosie boisterously, and updates her on the whereabouts of mutual acquaintances, while a parrot in a cage near the desk keeps an eye on us all.  After a walk through the pasar on Saturday, we dine, poolside, at a fifth floor restaurant with parapets overlooking the town.  I have the most delicate beef stroganoff ever, comparable only to the lamb ragout I enjoyed a couple years ago in a New Delhi garden restaurant.  As the meal concludes, we are treated to the dramatic sight of wind sweeping a rainstorm over the mist-shrouded volcano and hills in the distance.

I can't help comparing the bazaar, called pasar in Java, to similar experiences in India.  Sellers of all kinds
of fresh produce:  fish, flowers, meat, fruit, and vegetables on the pavement or in tiny shops, other shops with crude tools, simple toys or jewellery--you name it-- line the aisles, with hardly room to walk between them and the walkway, where motorcycles move calmly and carefully along with the walkers.  The pasar seems to be as big as an American 'block,' with shops like this, often two deep, on all sides of a solid warren of tiny lanes leading to small shops of more varieties of goods....We spend an hour only walking around the outside of the pasar, thankful for a roof wide enough to lend shade as we shop. Vera quietly produces an umbrella for me when we pass a stretch under the hot noonday sun. Dani buys me a rather attractive cowbell that I admire.

The town food inspector greets the Kameos as she comes to check out the meat stalls.  Whole and cut up chicken, red meat being sliced on a table, you name it, are all right out in the open, and looking surprisingly clean.  A plump woman meat seller exchanges pleasantries with Rosie.  Everyone seems affable, open and unselfconscious as Rosie snaps pictures along the way.  At a tin-roofed section of sweet treats, we watch, taste and buy a local version of peanut brittle being made with crude brown sugar.  Nearby a man patiently pedals a bicycle affixed to a tiny platform where a little girl enjoys the resultant back and forth of a miniature car, much like an American child would enjoy the animal or car 'ride' at a mall or supermarket.  We pick out a few bundles of fresh flowers.  My feet are complaining, but it's tempting to stay and see some more.

I'm tired but happy as we drive back to Solo for a flight back to Singapore, where I'll connect with my onward flight to India.  I wish I'd thought of allowing time for souvenir shopping at the airport, but the Indonesian puppets and basketry products I admire there will have to wait for another visit.  PTL I get
three seats to myself, and am able to stretch out and sleep on the flight of several hours

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Expect the Unexpected, a Tuesday list of random happenings

This week's Tuesday list challenge is "Whatever you like," so I'll share a couple of random unexpected events experienced since I came to India in mid January.

One night, after the others have gone to bed, I am still on the computer.  I fail to notice a soft voice calling, "Madam..." until about the third time, when I realize the voice is at the living room window just opposite me  (there's an iron grid, but the glass window is ajar).  'Evaru?" (who?) I call.  "Chendu," the voice replies.  Not recognizing the name, I call to my husband in the next room.  "Just tell him to go away," he says.  Hm, someone just coming to visit too late, I think, and ask the voice to leave, because everyone is asleep.  Silence.  Then,  even quieter: "I love you, Madam..."  Startled, I tell him in sterner terms to leave, while sister-in-law and husband, hearing my voice raise, emerge from their respective rooms to assure me that it's just the neighbor's husband, who occasionally comes around a bit inebriated.  Not to worry.  I am annoyed. They laugh. I am not amused.

There are plenty of women's beauty salons in Guntur, with a full range of salon services.  I opt for a haircut, and climb the stairs and round the L-shaped balcony to The Little Princess Beauty Salon.  Three young women, perhaps teenagers, welcome me.  I ask for the 'Madame" (common name for woman proprietor as well as respected woman here), whom one of the girls calls on the cell phone, and Madame says she'll be right there.  The gals surround me to conduct a rather typical foreigner-interview.  What do you want (done)??.  What country are you from?  How do you know how to speak Telugu?  Where do you stay in Guntur? Do you like India?  They tell me their names, and withdraw to look and think of more questions.  One of the girls comes close and quietly asks me which church I attend, and tells me she attends the Believers' Church near the Baptist Church, that she and her sisters became Christians after their mother came to be a believer, but that their father has not...he drinks...Madame arrives and everyone busies herself, as we discuss what kind of cut I want.  "Boy Cut" seems the closest, and I describe the modified effect I would like.  Madame places the scissor near my ear as she asks how long I would like it, and before I know it, she clips it close to my head all around the ear. Alas, "Boy Cut" is what she hears, and boy cut is what I get.  Oh well, at least under what's left, it's still me.  

Franklin and I pay a visit to Ganapavaram, where we have had a PUSHPA evening school the longest, and a beaming little girl thrusts a fistful of rosy pink hibiscus blossoms into my hand.  We are shown to chairs under the open-sided building's  corrugated metal canopy, and chat with a handful of early-arriving children as more children and adults congregate after their day at field work or public school.  Other little girls get into the spirit of giving flowers, and soon I have a lapful.  As we begin our meeting a little more formally, one more child, whom I remember as a wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked baby in her father's arms when we first began, several years ago, shyly slips me one more flower...and then presses a small coin, worth perhaps two cents, into my hand.  I look at the coin and at her:  each of us apparently considering the appropriateness of the latter gift, which I hesitantly offer back to the child.  I smile, suggesting that she save it.  She does not hesitate, but takes the coin carefully back to her school bag. Did I do the right thing?  Did she?  Lord knows.  What would you have done?

I've been happy to find that we can buy pre-mixed batter for a fermented lentil crepe dish that I like, right in Minneapolis, recently.  It's only one of several common breakfast foods in India, but one that requires a bit of prep-work.  Lo and behold, the pre-mixed batter is being used here too, and we have dosais, clearly one of my favorite breakfasts, almost every day.  A pleasant surprise.

This morning I visit a tiny hospital, being developed by friends, Dr. wife and husband, to serve an inner city neighborhood, in an old mission bungalow.  Hoping to share more information about it with you, I take several photos. I ask my tour guide, the Dr.'s teen-aged daughter, to lie on a bed, pretending she is having a test.  She does, and I take my picture.  But suggesting photo participation here is like offering honey to bees; one or another chuckling staff member eagerly volunteers to lie on every bed in every department after that.  I demur at posing patients in every picture, and the group desists, dropping back to simply observe my reaction to, and suggest photographs to be taken in, the rest of the facility.  As I am leaving, a number of patients and patients' families are checking in, and the good Dr. wants me to take a picture of folks now crowding around the admissions desk.  I agree, provided that they all agree to be photographed, and Dr. has no trouble in informing them that I want to take a picture.  'Want to take one un-posed, but announcing is tantamount to posing, and I finally have to settle for taking several shots of a random group of people resolutely facing the camera.  Many are still smiling as I 'take leave.'  Most Indian people have an innate  propensity for 'presence of mind,' and are able to seize all kinds of opportunities on the spur of the moment. But allowing a photographer to take a spontaneous photograph is not one of them.  I keep hoping.

One more 'surprise' -- At our 'old' house, we used to hear the neighborhood night watchman several times during the night, the clank of his rod on the ground and soft 'twee' of his whistle reassuring us that all was well.  But this year I hear the same whistle in broad daylight, in the late afternoon.  Two saree-clad women, their hair and faces tied with a protective covering, come by, pushing a low-platform, light-weight cart equipped with several large garbage cans, and calling at homes to take out the days' garbage, which they eventually empty at a neighborhood dumpster around the corner. Discarding of trash and indiscriminate dumping continue to be problematic in the Indian environment, but these enterprising ladies, with very little investment, are making the most of the opportunity (and the increasing number of paved streets) to create a much needed business.  I salute them.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Indonesian Interlude, Part II

Dani and Rosie’s morning walks in Salatiga go uphill and down, sometimes at what appear to me to be forty-five degree angles, in streets around their neighbourhood of homes, retreats, small fields, all surrounded by densely green areas of trees and bushes.  After just one try, via streets Rosie kindly recommends  for wimp-walker- me, I content myself with several rounds of the driveway and the brick patio outside my guest room windows.

Two nights of rain are followed by two nights of high wind, sending occasional coconuts, papaya, not-quite-ready-to-harvest guava, and even a few palm branches thumping against the house or littering the driveway.  But each morning the sun shines anew, inspiring songbirds and highlighting flowers, particularly a large, scarlet honeysuckle-shaped blossom with eight slender petals, hanging upside down from single straggly vine in the arbor above ‘my’ patio.  One afternoon I am treated to the sight of a slender sparrow-sized bird that appears to be a hummingbird, hovering to sip from a similar bloom, just under the arbor canopy.

The town of Salatiga reminds me of India. Medium small shops lining a faded pink, colonial era looking mall are crowded with goods in indifferent condition, somewhat haphazardly arranged.  A grocery store, like an old, overcrowded country store hanging on to its existence into the fifties.  

We visit a batik shop, where cloth of batik and other varieties are compressed into shelves and pile on tables, to view which the proprietor’s assistance is required. He unfolds several heavy bolts of a certain type of cloth, to demonstrate how the cloth feels cold and damp, the significance of which I fail to grasp:  perhaps they are ‘fresh’?  Rosie tells me that if the cloth feels cold or damp to the touch, it will be cool and comfortable to wear, and that Indonesians often consider that when purchasing cloth.

I move over to the more ordinary cloth section, and purchase two designs that please me, realizing only later that one of them is ikat, a dying/weaving technique also done in the area of India I will visit next week. The proprietor treats us to a small drink box of water, a welcome treat after shopping here and there for over
an hour.  Usually husbands tire of how long women can shop, but we have to laugh when we realize we are the ones waiting for Dani, supposedly buying a light bulb, but, in fact, visiting with shopkeepers, old friends, along the way.

I ask for children’s music at a tiny roadside CD display, and two men (I’m not sure whether the second was a bystander, friend of the seller, or perhaps the owner) scrounge up a disc by an Indonesian child rock star who, they assure me, is wildly popular in Indonesia.  I hope my grandchildren, rock connoisseurs themselves, will concur.  

Traffic is similar to that in India, everything from bicycle rickshaw (driver in the rear) and motorcycle to auto and truck, but sharing the  lane-marked road quietly: no honking of horns!  Traffic signs remind one of the rules; lest anything be forgotten, there's even a sign that is simply one big exclamation point!

One day we drive to Semarang, a city an hour to the north of Salatiga, where, as  head of the Central Java Research Bureau, which reports to the governor of Java on development policies, programs and projects, Dani convenes a meeting.  The bureau's name in Indonesian, "Dewan Reset Daerah, Jawa Tengah" looks like it could be fun to pronounce.  Dani later regales us with a humorous take on getting all members of a newly formed committee 'on the same page.'

Rosie, Vera and I lunch at Ciputra  Hotel where there is a sumptuous buffet, We visit a modest shopping mall, replete with special promotions in the atrium, and a more upscale mall, not so different from an American city mall, where Dani joins us for coffee (my vote:  hot chocolate) at a Starbucks. Travel malaise is still with me, and it’s hard to stay awake on the drive home.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Morning, in India

What the heck time is it over there, anyway? a Minnesota friend texts, You seem to be on the computer around the clock!

While I admit to having spent mid-night moments on the computer, the confusing truth is that time in India is eleven and a half (yup, a half, go figure…) hours ahead of that in Minnesota.  While Rita is going out on an errand before supper, I have just gotten up at the usual time of six o’clock in the morning.  The sky lightens, but the day starts with a thin gray fog of mist cum air pollution that burns away in the sun

Residents of neighborhood apartment buildings go out to work, their movements marked by an elevator call of three clear xylophone-like tones, weirdly reminiscent of the old NBC trademark sound, but with the first two tones reversed..  The couple next door have abandoned their morning and evening shouting matches in favor of slammed doors.  The only daily street vendor is the leafy greens seller, the call enumerating his wares resounding from stone buildings and compound walls as he passes by on his bicycle, a bundle of his wares tied in a damp cloth behind him:  "Aaaak-kuraluuu, thota kura, batsa kura, go-o-n-go-o-rruh'!!" On occasional days, we might hear the long-handled-cobweb-duster seller, hollering 'Boos Karra, Boos Karra!", or the salt seller,with his "Oop-POO, Oop-Poo!"

I remove the corner-ties from the four wooden sticks suspending the mosquito netting, reinforced and formed by a grid of cloth tape into an “inverted box” over our bed by night, and fold it into a dusty, lumpy ‘pillow’ at the foot of the bed. Plump up the pillows, straighten the coverlet, and lie on the futon-firm bed for my daily dose of yoga postures.  (I’m no pro, and draw the line at lying on the floor, from which I cannot rise without help.)  Then I pull aside the window curtains and turn on the fan to clear out the stale night air.
Brotherinlaw has already busied himself in the kitchen, putting away air-dried dishes.  Sisterinlaw comes downstairs and  makes a cup of Indian tea for everyone except me.  (An occasional cup will do, thank you.)  We take turns scanning the news in two differently-slanted English language newspapers and sharing bits of it with each other, while an Indian nightingale churns out a hearty throb, reminding us that there is beauty in addition to necessity…
Don tennis shoes for a walk, in the cobbled rock driveway and stone path around the house, around the neighbourhood, or, if the driver comes early enough, around the red beaten earth municipal track several blocks away.  At the track, depending on the hour, there may be equal numbers of women and men, or mostly men, of the neighbourhood and city, walking singly or in pairs, silent or chatting, wearing comfortable versions of Indian or western clothing, with flip flops, sandals or tennis shoes, earnestly putting in their daily rounds before going off (or home) to work.  Contingents of middle aged and older men sit, chatting and/or passively eyeing the walkers, from benches in one corner, women in another, and grannies and mothers on tiered seating, encouraging children learning to rollerskate on a concrete rink next to the outdoor basketball court which, with an open field and two storied gym cum community center.
Then it’s home for a quick bath (a hot one if we’ve remembered to turn on the geezer (hot water heater) for just five minutes) and a hot breakfast served up by our sister-in-law.  This year it’s possible to buy ready-made batter for a traditional breakfast dosai (soft or crisp crepe of fermented lentils), which we eat, with or without condiment, egg, or potato curry, most every day.  (Previously, one had to soak black lentils and rice overnight, and grind them into a thin batter, in a noisy, powerful blender.) Dosais are fried on a very hot  griddle, surface cooled with a sudden dash or a swipe of cold water just before frying.  Batter too thick, the dosai will lump up, and cook to a breadier texture.  Too thin, and it will spatter. Just right and there you have it, delicately brown on one side, sometimes crisp, and white on the other.
As with chappatis, rotis, and uttapams, dosais are eaten with the right hand, deftly tearing off a piece at a time, scooping up and wrapping a morsel of curry of patchadi (spicy relish) to pop into your mouth.   Eat a piece of fresh fruit after every meal:  papaya, banana, and seasonal ‘loose jackets’ (think large, delicately flavoured tangerines with, of course, loose peels) are available every day, besides guava, or an occasional thick peeled, sweet grapefruit, fallen from a tree near the house.
To be sure, I could go on all day about just the morning routine, but enough for today...It's noon, and I have yet to finish telling you about Indonesia.