Sunday, April 26, 2009

113 degrees, Life on Mars

Yes, it's boring to talk about the weather. But it was over 110 where we spent the day yesterday, and the town, Surendernagar, wouldn't hold too much charm at 72. But Surendernagar, which would fall top center on this old map of Gujarat, has a good enough hotel and places to eat. Wendy stayed there while she was working with the weaver in the nearby village of Somasar. Somasar has two pop stands and three betel nut stores for facilities. Pleasant place, though. The citizens of the town find foreigners unusual. Ben and I went for a walk there yesterday, and halfway up a silent block a dozen kids surrounded us. A young water buffalo, apparently not accustomed to strangers, took a look at us, turned and ran. We come in peace. It fell just short of having to explain what it is like to live on Mars. Oh, and Wendy completed her research yesterday. Endless delays and irritations, and she made it. Hurray!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Let's Sum it up a Little

Yes, that's toothblack guy, returned to something close to his origins, a rubber stamp. One could think of this adventure as the Rubber Stamp Expedition, due to the number of times we've heard a rubber stamp fall on a document, for good or other. But until now I've missed the other side of the rubber stamp: having them made. It only costs about 2 dollars. The other foot falls here. I'd planned to commision instruments, but no one makes instruments in my town. We went to Kambhat with our friend Gregg Jamison to see beads made from stone, and I ordered a slide, for slide guitar. It works and sustains like the wait in a public building in India. The key concept here is stumbling on what people make and personalizing it. Hello, toothblack.

Across the street from the stamp maker, which is, sweetly, very close to the State of Gujarat Documents office, I found a sign painter. He is of the old style, painting on metal or wood, illustrating dentures and rubber stamps and heating stoves. The guess was that the rubber stamp maker would know an old-fashioned, non-computer based sign painter. He did. And he sent us across the street. One of my most profound delights in the land of the Taj Mahal (we didn't bother) and the floating palace from Octopussy ( we did ) , has been the hand painted advertising signs in the bazaars and old sections of town. So, like fine artists everywhere, I'm hiring someone to complete my work. A jellyfish. A mighty vitamins poster. A cell from a plant.

To summarize. In India, you don't find what you thought what you were after, but you find possibilities you hadn't considered that extend that thing you thought you were after. I couldn't ask for more, and it is more work, in the form of relentless attention, than I had anticipated.

Monday, April 13, 2009

It was 110 Degrees Fahrenheit, Yesterday

Reflecting on that number leads to no further comment. It will be getting warmer.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dwight Died

Dwight died. He wasn't ancient as cat's lives go, but he exercised his option on all nine. Bryan Day, who is staying in our house, emailed to let us know Dwight was doing poorly. We asked Bryan to take him to the vet. The vet emailed, we called and decided that the best thing was to euthanize my favorite cat. I didn't even know I liked cats until we got Dwight, but I found out. He used to lick my beard and my neck, and bite my ears until I couldn't take it. But he would hold on almost like a small child. A small child with claws and a predator's teeth.

As it turned out, he died on his own, resting exhausted on a blanket under a heat lamp at the vet's office. This was some small relief, but I'd again had the experience of deciding on an ending. Can I please be seven years old again?

Losing a favorite pet from a great distance was strange, and we each handled it in our own way.
While we've established a regular domestic life in India, Dwight's death was a little needed reminder of our lives at home and how parts of those lives go on and even go away while we're gone.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Until the Cows Come Home

To wrap up the cow story, a synopsis. The cows led us into a huge open space, university land without buildings, and they worked the grass there. We stood in the shade of a banyan tree and Lee shot video. After finishing with the sparse grass in this place, the cows left the way they had come in, through a hole punched in a tall brick wall. We followed them up a street where they strolled through another hole. Here we hesitated, because the other side of the hole was clearly a piss stop for pedestrians and rickshaw drivers. Then we saw some kids come out and we went through and caught up with the cows.

This area turned out to be university residential space. It is divided into three areas: staff, professors and peons. This description from the father of an economics professor, a retired Indian airforce pilot, who lives there with his wife and adult son. He was the second curious resident of this neighborhood to speak with us and offer us chai. The first was a staff person. We turned down both because the cows were on the move. The third offer came from a sculptor who works in the archeology department. He was curious about the filming of the cows. This time we got chai and a relaxed conversation in the house he shares with his family. The house is 150 years old with patina to show for it. The sculptor's wife is also a sculptor, who teaches in the fine arts department. Here we nearly stayed for lunch, but left when we discovered the cows had moved on unexpectedly. They typically spend the afternoon nearby.

Scared we'd lost them, Lee and I ran around the neighborhood and found the cows, just as they were leaving through the hole in the wall. They walked about a block and entered a partially built neighborhood behind the university's chemical analysis building. The cows spent the rest of the afternoon here, grazing. We entertained and were entertained by a group of kids. They sang, they danced, they told jokes. Wendy brought water, Ben brought food. It never got boring.

Finally, around five, the cows headed for home. They had consumed remarkably little garbage, mostly grass. They trotted down major roads and the traffic parted. When they made it home it was too early for milking, so Lee and I relaxed in the neighborhood, then decided to go back to the apartment to gather energy for the final filming. We went back at mosquito time, around 6:30, and videotaped the evening milking. We waved goodbye to our urban farmer friends and walked home. As I said, it never got boring.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cow Shadowing

Back to the cows, and a long way to go to catch up. The dairy family didn't release the cows right away, so Lee and I waited. Finally we asked when they were going to let them out and they said they wouldn't that day because a dignitary was in town and the authorities were enforcing the twice-a-year enforced law against allowing cattle to move freely on the streets. This was like Guiliani clearing NYC of homeless people for the Republican convention, or me picking up the house for a party. Cattle caught out would be loaded onto a truck and moved to a huge parking lot where they would be held until the owner paid a fine/ransom of 1,800 rupees. That's around $36 U.S., and a lot of money in India. So we thought the day was over. Then they let them out, anyway, and we took off after a group of 5 or 6 cows that Lee liked. Nothing like a group of cows to run interference through heavy traffic. The cows moved with a purpose across one of the busiest streets in our town, and straight down another one. We kept up.

The photo shows my feet at the end of a day of cow shadowing.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Front Page Photo: Foreigners Play Holi

Yes, we've made the paper again. This time we were captured playing holi, the holiday involving bonfires and dusting with brightly colored powders. The ritual purpose is to drive out evil, which I needed, so good can triumph. It's a Hindu spring ritual. That's our friend Gregg Jameson, an archeologist Fulbright student scholar, who's here working on his dissertation project. It turns out he needed to have evil driven out, too. I'll leave it to the other members of our family to comment on personal evil removal.

360 Million Deities

Earlier this week, Lee and I spent a full day, sunrise to sundown, following a group of cows. We set our alarms for 5:2o, and by 6 a.m. Wendy, Lee, and I made it to the milking pen. Lee had come up with the idea to film a day in the life of a free range, holy street cow for a school project. These cows are all over Baroda, and even the buses make way for them. We learned a lot that day, and it will take several posts to tell the story.

Wendy and I had stumbled across this livestock market neighborhood early in our stay here. It's a few blocks from the Ginger, the silly minimalist hotel we stayed in while we looked for an apartment. We were glad that Ben and Lee weren't with us on that walk, because we hadn't eased into India, yet. The vision would have shocked them. Barbed wire, chickens in tiny cages on the backs of transport rickshaws, goats and goat pellets everywhere. It smelled bad.

We kept going back, and slowly got to know some of the people who live there. The Hindu family that owns most of the cows lives next door to close friends, a Muslim family. A young girl in the 11th form at school, a member of the Muslim family, speaks English well. As we drank chai in the street, a gesture of hospitality from the Hindu family, the Muslim girl told us about the cows and the neighborhood. The two families serve as god parents to each other's children. I guess that means the Muslim family got the better deal - more deities. It was interesting to drink chai made with fresh milk from cows which had been eating garbage on the streets a few hours earlier. But Hindus believe cows contain 360 million deities, which should technically provide some basic filtering.

When we came back for the project, the Muslim family was outside in the dark working and Lee started shooting using night vision on the video camera. The sky gradually lightened as the family filled buckets with milk.

Monday, March 2, 2009

the Invention of India

Yes, Dr. Seuss invented India. The grinch seems to have had a strong influence: I saw some guys sleeping on the platforms of their food carts last night. This on a street where we saw lots of rats cleaning up after the vendors. The guys on the carts were better off than the guys sleeping on concrete a few feet away. Across the street we found a low dive with music. The band backed a series of profoundly disinterested female vocalists who would disappear from the room after a message was placed on her music stand. We figured it out: working girls. Very creepy place. No photos allowed. Good musicians. Two of us got very sick the next day. Something bad in the drinks or the snacks. Dr. Seuss! And Ben played a dj show last night in a club called The Underground in our hotel complex. He's probably going to play there again on Wednesday. We're in Kolkata.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What is the meaning of this?

Naturally, we run into a few things we don't fully understand here, in our adopted home of Vadodara. For instance, this possibly abandoned carnival ride, in which each rider sits on Santa's lap, stands in the back lot of a low traffic business proposition called the Tibetan Refugee Bazaar. I did see one vendor who looked Tibetan. Lee and I saw some other inscrutable figures there, these giant plastic army men.

I think these are statues in honor of the public servants who designed the liquor laws in Gujarat. Not one to be blocked by the officious of any stripe, I did return to the office of Prohibition and Excise carrying the fragile dream of obtaining a license to buy alcohol. Have you noticed that my initials are the same as Josef K?

The day of the previous post, I left the prohibition office with a list of three requirements. First, I needed to visit the State Bank of Baroda and pay my license fee. The autorickshaw dropped Ben, Lee, and me at the door of what looked like the State Bank of Baroda. We entered, passing the rifle armed military presence, and were told by an english speaker at a desk that, no, the bank we wanted was three buildings down. We walked for a while, seeing nothing that hinted at another State Bank of Baroda, went into a sporting goods store and bought a soccer ball. Then we walked back to the bank to ask again. This time the english speaker sent the rifleman out to the street with us and he pointed in the direction we had tried. We tried again and saw nothing, so we crossed the street, to see if it was easier to spot from there. Ben found it, hidden by a Western Union sign, second story location.

We went in and were directed further upstairs. The right place. I paid and the clerk stamped my application and Wendy's. We returned to the excise office.

Though rubber stamps had been applied to both sets of forms with the clear pleasure of authority, it turned out that only one license fee had been paid. Wendy's. Wendy was four hours away in a weaving village. By this point I had developed a complex relationship with the clerks in the excise office. Though they had seemed pleased or amused to see me again, one actually prayed that we could get this business finished. I know he was praying because I asked. They crossed out Wendy's name on the officially completed form, and passed it around the office. My clerk asked if I had my passport. No I didn't and showed him his own note which listed Passport Copy as point number three on list of things needed. I pretended to pound my head on his desk. O.k. Ok. The copy was good enough.

The last step was to get the supervisors's signature. Oh, he was out to lunch. We all laughed, except for Ben and Lee who were out in the hall because they couldn't take it. So I went out in the hall and waited. Ben and Lee left. When the big man got back from lunch, a minion ran the documents in and they came back signed. I never actually saw his face. His office used to be the end of a hallway, but it was blocked off by a partition wall attached with mending strips. I guess he had his own window in there, maybe an air conditioner bought with kick backs.

I thanked everyone in the office and exchanged nods and smiles. I salute the answered prayers of a clerk.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Those are the Rules -

We've been here over a month, living in Gujarat, a dry state. Did you know Ghandhi was a prohibitionist?

O.k., fine, so we've experimented with living without a few cold ones, except for a single day on the island of Dieu. We've known all along there was a loophole in the alcohol law, that "foreigners" could purchase alcohol licenses if they showed proof of residence, passports, location of identifying scars, etc. This past Saturday, Valentines Day, we decided to exercise the loophole. Incidentally, some radical Hindus attacked openly romantic couples in Delhi that day, shearing heads of the romantically inclined and painting their faces black.

We went to a fancy hotel, the Express, for dinner and to buy from their liquor shop. We got there at nine and the shop was closed, but dinner was very good. They said we could return on Monday, and purchase our license and beverages. Closed Sunday. So we went back today for lunch, bringing our lease as proof of residence, passports, Indian (not US) size passport photos, etc. They couldn't sell us a license because we had been in the country for more than thirty days.
Lunch was very good.

We then got into a rickshaw and went to the office of Prohibition and Excise on Jail Road. The licenses are about $20 apiece, limiting purchases to one case of beer, one bottle of spirits, or one bottle of wine per person, per week. The affable bureaucrat made triplicate copies of everything and we signed them. Oh, and we would have to go to the Bank of India on Tower road to pay for license. Oh, and we would have to return after payment to the Prohibition office . Oh, and we couldn't complete the license today because the superintendent was out. So I will try to complete this tomorrow, but I'm betting it won't work because the apartment is in Wendy's name. Oh, and she's going out of town for a few days to work in a village and she'll need her passport. So if I go on to gamble on completing the license, she'll have to repeat the same set of steps to get her license when she gets back. And there is no way this the end of this story.

The poster above decorates the hallway outside the Prohibition and Excise office.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blow Horn: a Short Vacation

Last weekend we hired a driver and took a trip. Wendy made a great contact with a double ikhat weaver who is willing to share his secrets: some of this technique has never been documented. She won't be able to witness the whole process, which takes months to complete, but his willingness to talk about the work is a breakthrough.

We did a lot on this four night trip. We climbed a temple studded mountain with religious pilgrims and various hustlers. We got up at 5 a.m. one morning to hire a jeep and guide to look for asiatic lions in a huge forest preserve. And, along with various deer, birds, and wild boar, we saw a pair of lions. That was a primal moment. A tribal herdsman waved us down and directed us toward the huge animals. We had to drive off the legal road to see them, which added to the excitement. The guide and driver risked their licenses, but seemed just as excited as we were.

We also walked around an ancient Mughal fortress, and spent a night in a lodging built into an upstairs section of an old cathedral on the island of Dieu, a former Portuguese holding that didn't return to Indian rule until 1960. No surf, but a beautiful spot. At Somnath, we visited a meticulously restored Hindu temple on the shore of the Arabian sea. The high security included metal detectors, pat downs, and armed guards. Great music on shenai, drums and bells. Oh. Right after that, Wendy stepped up to her ankle in a gutter of raw sewage. A little black dog helped clean her, but she had to ride back to the hotel in an autorickshaw by herself.

We saw the recent remains of at least four accidents over the five days on the road. Early on we passed a big freight truck that had simply broken in the middle of the cargo area and sagged to the ground. We saw the still smouldering remains of a head on collision between a freight truck and a smaller, unidentifiable vehicle. Both had burned down to twisted, gray metal.

Traffic ranges from cows, to oxcarts, to bicycles, to autorickshaws, to tractors pulling wagons full of people, to wildly decorated freight trucks, to passenger cars. The whole road is fair game going in either direction. Honking never stops, is in fact expected and encouraged. I sat in the front seat, a mixed blessing, especially at night. We made it back.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Baby Cow

This afternoon Ben and I turned the corner from our building, on the way to eat lunch, and encountered a sacred cow and newly born calf. The calf was standing, but the holy mother was still licking it clean, and the afterbirth remained dangling. It was fascinating. I forgot myself and got too close. The big cow lunged at me, protective mammal style.

Lee had seen the two shortly before, while before the little one stood up. Someone got too close and the mother butted him.

Later, Wendy saw a man carrying the calf wrapped in burlap and calling for the mother to follow. I'm sure he was leading the two to a safe place.

These cows are everywhere, strolling across busy streets, walking along sidewalks and through the park, mostly occupied by eating garbage. Legend has it buses won't alter their course for humans, cars or rickshaws, but they will brake and swerve for cows. We considered making two cow costumes, standard two people per costume, so we could make safe passage across these absurd streets.

The cow shown above is not the birth mother, but another cow browsing a sweet shop.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Out Sick

Lee and I were out sick yesterday. We each spent a long night exploring a range of gastrointestinal
possibilities. So we napped and read most of yesterday. Wendy went to Amnebad to visit one of the world's great textile museums, the Calico Museum. She also made great contacts at a National University nearby. Ben took a hired car to a World Heritage site near Champeneer. (Local spellings all approximate). Ancient temples and a solo mountain jutting out of the plain. Ben got back about four, so we had time for the driver to take Ben and the recovering Lee and me for a ride into the countryside. We picked a road straight west that crosses a large river just before it empties into the Arabian Sea. We saw lots of small agriculture, lots of camels, and wildly decorated cargo trucks. This drive help satisfy my need to know where we are. Up until then we'd just dropped out of the sky into Delhi, then dropped into Baroda.

A photo of Ben and Lee at a fair put on by Wendy's department appeared in the local paper. The expat community keeps to itself here. We don't.


So yeah, we're curiosities here. That we surprise local people by our simple presence creates a nice balance and a counter to orientalism. If this place seems exotic to us, we seem exotic to them. This family stopped their vehicle to take photos of the foreigners buying wicker furniture at a street stand. So we took photos of them taking photos of us. All very friendly and good natured.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Crummy, private detective style shot of the Delhi Barnacle.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A bag of trash

We've been ambivalent about hiring domestic help. It feels exploitative to hire anyone for the wages they request. But the marble floor needs to be mopped every day or it gets gritty, even if we leave our shoes at the door. So we decided to hire someone. Wendy tried to communicate this to the guard yesterday, and he seemed to understand. Later in the morning a man and a woman appeared in the hallway. The woman carried cleaning gear and the man held a bag of trash. The man said something in Gujurati. I understood nothing. He did not gesture toward the cleaning woman. I went to the kitchen and returned with a huge plastic bag full of garbage. I handed it to him. He accepted it. Later we found out he had come to introduce the cleaning woman. He took the trash anyway. We are the inscrutable foreigners. Ask us anything and we happily respond with a bag of trash. Thank you so much. I think I'll try it with the internet guy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Everything is negotiable. That is, unless it has a federally regulated maximum resale price tag on it. The richshaws have a meter with a flag. Sometimes they don't like to run the meter. So you make a deal upon entry. Sometimes the driver asks for more at the end of the ride. This gets interesting because from our side the suggested overcharge is usually around 20 cents, U.S. currency.The second night we spent in Delhi, I had a conversation about this with Gregg Jamison, a Fulbright archaeologist from Madison. We agreed that if our egos are in place, the "rip-off" is meaningless. Usually, that's true. Sometimes the attitude of the driver or merchant is so agressive or filled with smirking pleasure at our ignorance that 20 cents or 40 cents is enough for me to respond. Twenty rupees over the standard fee: move to another rickshaw. Some days, when we've been negotiating everything else and dancing to the beat of rubber stamps, saying no to something is a way to feel like we have a little control. Of course we have almost no control here at all.

Lee has suffered lots of stares and a certain amount of stalking. The first clear stalker appeared at Humayan's tomb in Delhi. He followed at a distance, then would pass and move ahead, anticipating our direction. We played with him a little, letting him get ahead then reversing our direction and taking a parallel route. He even followed us out of the monument and watched while we got into our cab. We called him the barnacle. I'll post his blurry, cheap-detective style photo when our neighbor's internet permits.

This attention disturbs Lee less all the time. We call her the white goddess. Not many "foreigners" here. The local guy, the Badora Stalker, was at it again today, walking back and forth, trying to stay inconspicuous. I walked down and stood about five inches from him, not moving. We both gazed across the street for a while. He dropped his cigarettes and matches. Very satisfying. Whenever we see this guy, we take a rickshaw home, so he won't follow us to our apartment.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Back for a photo

The whole family went back to the bazaar, bought stainless steel plates and mosquito nets, and took a quick and embarrassingly voyeuristic peek at the forbidden corner.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Some Luck

Ben and I found a drum teacher. Our rental agent, Krumal, a great guy and funny, gave us the name of a vocal lecturer in the University's school of Music. We tried to call him but got screaming kids and someone we couldn't understand, so we rode a rickshaw to the school. It sits on a lake with a 265 foot sculpture of Shiva. Yikes. It's much scarier than the Lincoln Memorial. The first person we asked to help us was the chair of the dance department. She said no, no, you need to talk to Bharat Gangani. She went to find him and within ten minutes we were set up for daily, two hour lessons on hand drums. Mr. Bharat comes from a family of drummers. He's also a classical Indian dancer.

Today Bharat took us to his favorite music shop and we bought a two headed drum played horizonally with hands or sticks. It looks like a baby cocktail drum. When anyone started playing, the shop guys joined in. The shop is about the size of a one stall garage. One of the craftsmen fine tuned the drum and we took it home. We start lessons tomorrow.

Ben and I took an interesting walk through the bazaar yesterday. We ended up at the Shiva lake again later in the afternoon. The huge stone gate to the bazaar stands at one end of the lake. From inside the bazaar you can see Shiva framed in the arch. Wendy and Lee took a rickshaw home, while Ben and I went in. This isn't a tourist town. Everybody else looked local except for the naked, ash covered guy with chains on his genitals and couple of barefoot guys in Orange turbans from Rajastan.

We walked in a straight line through clothing, cookware, plumbing and hardware. The shops started to thin out and we found ourselves in an open block with two narrow entrances. We felt like we had intruded in a private quarter. The buildings were disheveled to the degree that it looked like it had been designed for the movies. One stoop was loaded with people, all women in Saris who smiled and laughed at us. A laughing vegetable seller gestured with his arms for us to go in there. And we got it. A whorehouse. We declined. We will go back, though, to photograph that neighborhood.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It Takes a While

Filed documents in one of the records rooms, municipal building, Baroda. Wendy waits in the next room with a group of interested parties, negotiating the rubberstamping of our lease agreement: the greased- palm facilitator , our landlord who is a distributor of aftermarket truck springs from Mumbai, and his minion Gautam, a not to be trusted and morbidly obese young property manager and scion of a family that manufactures plastic components for dry cell batteries. Replace the local people with Europeans in black suits and white shirts. Film the Kafka story of your choice. We are in India.

I'm writing this at the door to one of our three balconies. A white faced, gray bodied monkey just jumped onto a tree limb in front of me. Yesterday, Ben was sitting on this balcony, using the same unprotected Internet connection I'm using, and a monkey joined him. We realized the bars on the windows work to keep out all kinds of intruders.

Right now a Muslim craftsman with good English is driving nails into strips of velcro around the windows of the apartment, so we can hang mosquito netting. We also have a cleaning woman in and her supervisor whose role is to tell the cleaning woman what to do. He doesn't do anything himself. You see a lot of trash and dust here. I'm more used to junk and dust than trash and dust. Everyone is so accustomed to everything being dirty that it seems no one knows what amounts to clean. Those of you who know our house may be shocked by this.

Last night was our first to sleep in the new apartment. This was, of course, delayed. Every path runs in a circle here, and considerable negotiation is required to complete the simplest task. The thump thump of rubber stamps runs steadily, but never seems conclusive. We went to a police station last night to register our lease as foreigners. A mouse ran out of the cop's office when we entered. I suspect it was tired of waiting. After much discussion it was determined that we would have to return today to get the proper stamping.

A lot of this action entertains us. I wouldn't have missed the stacks of tattered records and the labyrinth of the municipal building for anything.
Add Image