Monday, December 22, 2008

What's love got to do with my Punjab? Attending an Indian wedding with an ex-girlfriend

On the drive from Ahmedabad to Sundarna, we passed sprawled cities, filthy crowds, piles of burning garbage, driving past cows in the road and an endless sea of human gristle, all with little dots on their foreheads. We stop in some kind of human traffic jam and urchins crawls all over our car, tapping on the windows, looking for handouts. I have a powerful, passionate and overwhelming apathy that allows me to remain blind to their suffering as I mutter “misery loves company.” Brant is equally apathetic and declares “of course the glass is half empty! What are you blind?” Eventually the tangle of flesh clears and we stagger forward through the morning fog. Soon, the cities give way to a more pastoral landscape of golden mustard seed, the traffic thins out, and we reach the unheard-of speed of 50 km/hr. We watch the landscape change gradually and monkeys resurface alongside the road, now unafraid of their human counter-parts who often threaten to eat them. We are headed for a remote village to attend an Indian wedding ceremony.

I am accompanied by Brant Wilkinson, a teacher at Salinas High School and my best friend in Salinas, a man who can kill me with laughter without even trying and shares my grim view of humanity. Brant was invited to the wedding by his former student whose brother has been roped into marriage by his rather large Indian family in the classic “arranged” Indian way. I am merely crashing the wedding, and I have brought along a friend of mine from college, Laurel Kalish who smiles and does interesting things with her life and who I am going to marry.

For the duration of the wedding. We do this merely to avoid confusion and questioning. Older generation Indians simply refuse to understand how two people of opposite genders who can marginally tolerate one another and have some reasonable amount of compatibility could fail to marry one another. Any explanation we could offer would be met with the international sign of complete confusion, recognizable in the thizz-face-like expression of the befuddled local who will not “wipe that stupid look off [his] face” until you tell him something he can understand like “we’re waiting to get my father’s permission” or something. Telling people you’re already married can avoid awkwardness in any culture really. For me, a source of great bitterness and heartbreak is the recent memory of Jason Goldman’s wedding wherein I was questioned as to when I was going to marry my then girlfriend (whatsername I forget) to which she immediately replied without hesitation or remorse “oh us? We’re not getting married.” It’s better just to get married for a few days and live in a romantic fantasy world and then return to reality.

The taxi moves through the alleyways in the small town of Sundarna, and Brant notices that “it’s so crowded! It’s almost like there’s 1.2 billion of them. Where’s Vikram?” They’re all little Vikrams, and as much as this sounds like a racist comment, it’s quite true as all of these people are related to Vikram in some obscure way. We find the real Vikram next to a cow with his cell phone in hand, the perfect image of the modern Indian anachronism. We exchange introductions and greetings, and then we begin a process which will take several days—the process of meeting the family. After awhile, Vikram introduces people using a clever trick which absolves us of the obligation of actually learning their names. He simply says “John this is my other Uncle.” It makes sense.

We arrived at just about the right time for lunch. In the massive courtyard which has been temporarily converted into a dining hall, there is a large full-color banner which displays Vikram, his brother Jayvir Patel (the betrothed) alongside their mother and grandmother. Above the family, there is a little floating head of someone who looks photo-shopped into this family portrait. I ask Brant if he recognizes this man whom we have not met but is displayed as an integral part of the family unit in this portrait. Brant tells the story of the Patel American Dream, which he recounts according to his best memories of the event(s).

The Patel Family moved to Salinas California when Vikram and Jayvir were children, or perhaps before they were born, I don’t remember. They immediately purchased a convenience store, apparently unconcerned about reinforcing that old stereotype. This was of course in the worst part of town. After several years of the type of happy living that’s possible only for the recently immigrated that are working toward a “better future,” life took that tragic American turn, and there was violence in the East Salinas Kwik-E- Mart. Mr. Patel dove in front of a bullet to save his son and was killed, which explains why I have not yet heard the words “John this is my father.”

But the enormous family soldiers on, benefactors of the cultural stoicism that has witnessed death and hardship since before the time of Buddha, and ever since. I am not surprised when I don’t hear the words “John, this is my step-father.” Vikram’s mother is a widow for life, evidence of the triumph of the old world over the new world, a battle just as ambiguous and unresolved as the battle between nature and nurture.

As Laurel is whisked off to the “girls’ side” of today’s festivities, we realize that old world wins as long as the relatives and the ever watchful eyes of propriety are present. And they will always be present. So for the moment, despite her arrival into my life just a night earlier, after a 3 year absence, Laurel is gone to begin preparing for the wedding with the girls, and to talk (no doubt) about whatever it is girls discuss when they are doing each other’s hair. I think this may have been a good thing despite my reluctance to part with her, because Laurel has purchased three Saris and has no idea how to wear them.

Brant and I wander around the wedding ceremonies for awhile, absorbing the old world wedding music which has live singers, horns of some kind, and an assortment of drums. When the song ends, the mooing of cows complements the brief silence before the next song begins. We follow the band as it marches down the street in the fashion of a spontaneous parade, until we are strong-armed off the street and into the house of yet another relative.

We sit and drink Chai-Tea in this new and unfamiliar house belonging to Vikram’s other aunt, and are received as honored guests there as well. As we sit and pour tea from the cup to the saucer, slurping it loudly as per the custom, we notice that people from the village are walking in and out of the house freely without warning or invitation. During a wedding, it is explained to us, the whole village is as communal property. This presents a unique contrast to Salinas where walking into a neighbors house unannounced is likely to result in a shooting. It seems quaint and warm to me, but that is only until someone walks into the room where I am changing into my wedding clothes. All notions of privacy that I have heretofore relied upon are gone now, and I must ready myself to share the floor where I will sleep tonight alongside12 strangers.

As we sit and talk with the relatives, we can’t help but bring up some of the infamous events in the history of Gujarat, and Ahmedabad, the closest large city. Although this region seems peaceful now, we are told not to stray too far into the “Muslim area of town.” As recently as two years ago, a band of Muslim zealots hi-jacked a train and slaughtered it’s occupants as a protest over India-Pakistan relations, which many interpret through the lens of Muslim-Hindu relations. As revenge for the massacre, Hindu residents of Gujarat went to every Muslim household and killed the father of the family, in many cases burning them alive in front of their families. The women and children were made to march out of the province and into Pakistan. Owing to the fact that civil servants in India are intolerably corrupt, the police did nothing. The events seem almost forgotten now, beyond the warning to stay away from the Muslim areas. Even in this volatile environment, members of this family fear America and love their home, a sentiment that is mirrored by my American friends in reverse. "I'm mortified that you're in India" was one reaction to my travels. I'm sure that someone in the Patel family could be heard uttering "I'm mortified that you're going to America" to the young married couple, in the relatively obscure language of Gujarati, somewhere past the braying sound of the cows.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fuck-it list item #213-- watch a movie in a language you don't understand

The Indians have a saying, which they express often along with their characteristic head bob--"why not?"-- and it seems very apt to the "fuck-it" concept which is such a welcome addition to my life at present. In keeping with the spirit of "why not?" I decided to take Brant to an Indian movie the other night-- all in Hindi with no subtitles. Why not?

The movie, "Rab De Bana di Jodi", has been a big hit in India, and was so thoroughly weird, that we decided to take Michael a few days later, watching the movie in it's entirety for the second time. This is no small feat, given the fact that Indian movies, mostly produced in Mumbai--or "Bollywood" as it's known abroad, tend to last no less that 3 hours and encompass all genres from comedy to action to romance to musical--all in the same movie. The first time Brant and I went in Delhi, the theatre was packed and the audience reacted to every scene with a boo or an excited yelp or some other interjection, as if these were live players and not celluloid bits of film distributed worldwide. In the end, we didn't have the patience to sit past the intermission, so we missed the climactic ending, thinking the film exceedingly predictable, rendering an ending simply unnecessary. Days later, we would regret this choice and elect to attend one more time, and this time sit the thing out. After all, Indian movies are anything but predictable since the movie starts with a tragic death and then quickly becomes a comedy. Maybe everyone will get machine gunned to death by terrorists in the end, we think.

Or should I say.... we hope. "These characters are ridiculous" Michael notices immediately. I wonder what it was that made him say that. Was it the male protagonists who bursts into song upon receiving a lunchbox from his new wife? Was it the female protagonist who doesn't recognize her husband in a clever disguise consisting of styled hair and sunglasses? I'll never know.

A word on the plot-- it concerns a young man who works for an electric company (Punjab Power-- lighting up your life) who is desperately in love with..... his wife. She doesn't share his sentiments though, as this is an arranged marriage in the traditional Indian fashion. She feels bound to the union because of her father's deathbed wish, so she grudgingly proceeds with the whole thing while he tries desperately to impress her. One of his desperate attempts to win her fancy is signing up for a dance competition which she has entered and disguising himself carefully with wedgie tight jeans, J-lo sunglasses and spikey hair. It was a good disguise apparently, because when he becomes his wife's dance partner by the luck of the draw, she doesn't recognize him.

A word on characters-- he's a nerd who has a Saddam Hussein mustache, glasses, pocket protector, and hair combed in a neat part down the center of his Clark Kent-like dome. His friend is an ambiguously gay boy like from "la cage aux folles" or something whose dealings with the protagonist verge on homo-erotic but probably go unnoticed in India where they have made being gay illegal and thus assume that everyone is totally straight, ignoring all indications to the contrary. Like man on man dryhumping that masquerades as humorous "dance practice." She is a beautiful but vacuous traditional Indian girl who doesn't recognize her husband in his metro-sexual disguise but cock-blocks him (pardon the expression) because she's married to him. By virtue of her beauty, she is also allowed to be so horribly inscrutable that everyone in the audience looks shocked whenever she does something. Pretty girls can get away with that sort of shit, even in India.

The whole thing is reminiscent of that terrible 70's song about liking pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. I'm sure they're into Yoga though, unlike the song. Nonetheless, every American should be as familiar with the plot as they are with the many Hindi-English (Hinglish) eक्स्प्रेस्सिओंस ठाट expressions that decorate the movie like polka-dots on a fat man. Some of the more interesting Hinglish expressions from the film, which I took note of much to the chagrin of the man to my left, included: you know how these people are; mention not it; never say goodbye, always sayक्ष्प्रेस्सिओन्स ठाट ऍक्स्प्रॅशन ; no flirting; last chance; never fear Raj is here; yellow yellow dirty fellow; dance and romance 5,6,7, 8; it's all yours; dirty bitch; mind your tongue; and my favorite "I can't take it anymore."

Which pretty much describes our sentiments after about 2 and a half hours.

A word on culture-- Since we understand neither the language nor the folkways that inform Indian cinema, we have to continually guess at meaning. I assume that the female protagonist in the movie is falling in love with the "hot" version of her husband, but she is struggling to remain faithful to the Steve Urkel version because of the culture she lives in which is extremely sexually conservative. It's so sexually conservative that they simply assume that there will be no infidelity. This frees them from the poisonous prison of jealousy and suspicion, or so I assume from watching this movie. In one scene, the female protagonist comes home and tells her husband that she will not be sharing the meal she has prepared for him because she has just had an eating contest with her dance partner (also her husband--are you following this ok?) and is no longer hungry. To continue the ruse, dork husband has to sit through the meal and act as he is enjoying the food even though he too has just stuffed 50 somosas down his maw to celebrate their dance victory (as his alter ego- and therefore unrecognizable now). This sets up a bit of comedy as he then goes down and lays on the bed and groans for a very long time at his over-stuffed belly. The interesting thing though, is how husband and wife are able to openly talk about what essentially would amount to infidelity in a westernized culture (just because of the possibility for sex to follow). I find it interesting that the woman in the movie makes no attempt to conceal her relationship with her dance partner (which is way too intimate for comfort) simply because it's so unspeakable that she would cheat on her husband. This is of course entirely a huge assumption on my part, since most of the time I have no idea what's going on in this movie.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film. Not because of the film itself, that part was absolute nonsense, but because of the experience of inventing an explanation for the events as the film progressed. I had no idea what was going on moment to moment, so I had no choice but to construct reality as I went. This led me to a profound realization about myself-- that I simply prefer my version of the truth to the actual truth which is perhaps more true.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jaded musings on love and loss at the Taj Mahal-- December 17th 2008

In the fog of the early morning, the Taj Mahal appears ghostly, like something out of a dream ill remembered in the light of day. Literally it felt to me like I was sleeping, and at any moment I could wake and it would dissappear. As the first sun hits the towering white marble, it takes on a more tangible quality, and is luminous like a beacon. When Melville listed the multitude of meanings for the color white, he neglected to mention that white symbolizes mourning for some (widows wear white in India) in addition to it's well known connotations of purity. In this case it seems to me that the connotation of "purity" associated with the whiteness of the Taj Mahal embody the idea that love can last forever when it ends with someone's premature death.
The Taj Mahal, or so the story goes, is a monument to love. Emperor Shah Jahan married his true love in 1620-something, only to watch her die giving birth to their son, or so I gleaned from various tourguides whose tirades washed in and out of my ears like the tide as my thoughts turned elsewhere. I couldn't help but think about my own loves and how impermanent they have all turned out to be. Before Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth, an event she herself foresaw, she made her husband promise to build something enduring for her as a testament to their eternal love. The Taj Mahal was born in this fashion, but it took 22 years and over 20,000 men to build. I was reminded of the immortal work I myself created for my first girlfriend in high school, a gold pendant with a Saphire symbolizing her September birthday. I heard later, after I broke it off with her fearing that she would leave me behind as she was ahead of me in school, that she had tossed it in the lake on the golf course near my house. Maybe that was a daydream or something I told myself in order to get over it more quickly, but I seem to be powerless over what I believe and remember. Just like I cannot disbelieve the myths of the Taj Mahal even though most of them are reputedly false. The myth states that the flowers depicted on the outside of the building, constructed from inlaid glorious semi-precious stones in white marble, weep and sag in mourning over the death of Mumtaz Mahal instead of standing turgidly in the natural way of happy flowers. It was said that all of the flowers planted around the mausoleum that housed her body wept in this fashion, refusing to bloom in the manner befitting their nature. I believe it simply because I like the story, much like we all choose the fiction of belief in our own ways.
I got Jen the Saphire pendant, for Holly I also chose jewelry-- in the form of a "dablam" from Ama Dablam, after one of my trips to Nepal. I even went so far as to cut out a small picture of myself and place it inside the "charm box" (or locket) of the necklace so that she would remember me whenever she wanted. I'm sure she mostly chooses to forget these days. For Anna, I got a camera-- a vast step down in terms of romance. Maybe the pictures will last forever, if nothing else.
Somewhere during the 22 years spent on construction of the Taj, the Emperor was imprisoned by his own son who usurped power believing his father to have been driven mad by grief. The Emperor had of course demonstrated his lack of sanity by bankrupting all of India in his insistence on building an enduring beautiful thing. While people starved in the streets, construction of the Taj continued at great national cost to the citizenry of India. So for his madness, he was imprisoned in the Agra Fort, across the river where he spent his remaining days viewing his creation-- through the tiny window of a cell.

So too have I surrendered to the memories of love when love is gone, and dreams that keep me awake at night. Despite my very strong apathy in other realms, with love, I live with a total inabilty to forget or to stop caring. My imagination and memory are paradoxically more powerful than the world I live in, a world that gets colder and colder every day. But such is the fate of those of us who dedicate our energies to the pursuit of beautiful things, and foolishly believe that they will somehow endure.
As I type these words, so hastily concieved, it occurs to me that I do not know how to finish this entry. My feelings in this realm are so incomplete, it would be impossible to give you something that would resonate with the kind of truth I usually aim for. But I'll go ahead and publish this to you, dear reader, so that you might look at all the pretty pictures and feel happy, if only for a moment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Royal Chitwan National Park-- The best place for a Nepali Wild Bore

We sit in the front of a 20 foot-long skiff and glide slowly upstream through the languid river in the fog. In the middle of the river, I cannot see either bank, and I can barely discern the upright figure of the boatman who propels us across with a 10 foot bamboo pole which lightly graces the silt on the river bottom. The fog seems to absorb all light, and the only sound is the lazy current lapping over the gunwale. It's not just quiet; it's silent. This is intolerable so I say "alright everybody-- we're on Safari now-- Australian accents all day long. Crikey!" For my companions, this is funny. At first.

We land on the opposite bank and shuffle along a makeshift dock of sandbags tossed into the river which we hop across as if dodging traffic in Kathmandu. As I prepare to leap over the water to shore I look back toward my companions and exclaim "now my timing for this will have to be spot on" imitating my hero Bear Grylls. It doesn't matter to me that Bear is not Australian-- I will imitate Bear and Steve Irwin interchangeably all day. I pronounce "timing" like "toy-ming" and "spot on" like "spa-tawn." Eloise rolls her eyes. Rob laughs. He should not encourage me.

Our hired Nepali guide- a youngish looking confidence-exuding man named Hup (pronounced "hoop")-- asks us the thought provoking question "what is the most dangerous animal of all?" in clear English. Without hesitation I hunker down, spread out my arms, make my expression wild and excited for the camera, which (in my mind) follows my every action, and I say "ME!" Hup laughs and we walk on. After a while, still curious, I ask "no seriously, what's the most dangerous animal?" "Man" he says. My acting made his serious environmentalist statement reek of anti-climax, but as a temporary Australian for the day, I soldier stoically on through the awkwardness.

We board the Jeep which is open in the back for optimal wildlife (woild loif) viewing. We have gone not even 50 feet when we are surprised by a grouping of spotted deer. With an animal like that, you've got to be in complete control. People think I'm dangerous when I approach a fearsome animal like the spooted deer, but that's just percieved danger. I have to prove to the animal that I'm not afraid. "MEEE-upppp. MEEEE-upppp" I yell into the forest, imitating the animal's primitive mating call (moiting coal). They scatter. Rob gives me a dirty look, but he is just a silly American unaccustomed to life in these parts (pats). Hup points out that these are the "food of tiger" and the jeep rolls on. But I know that since (scenes) these animals crave salt, they may have tried to lick us to death. It was very harrowing. Few people know the actual danger (doin-jah) involved with the mighty spotted deer herd.

We drive (droive) through the forest knowing full well that those deer could still decide to take out their agression on us. They are known to charge the vehicle. Our driver drinks a piss-like substance out of a bottle and he's off his face by 9 am. I get the sense he's a bit of a layabout as he seems confused and lost and drives slower than necessary. But no worries, for at 10:17 we catch site of our first wild boar! He stands out like a dog's balls against the tall grasses as his black hide squeels through the forest. Would've been a good meal, that. I've had nothing but a dingo breakfast this morning, so I'm getting a bit hungry.

We continue along the dusty road as the sun burns through the clouds as cross as a frog in a sock. Eloise and Rob put some sunscreen on their necks, but I don't need it. I'm a true bushman. We drive through the high grass which Hup and his mates burn in the Spring to help the ecosystem evolve properly. There are many silk cotton trees and I sense large animals lurking in the brush. I call out into the forest. "Speeeer-chuck! kukuuuuuurrr. kukuuuuuur. chuck-chuk-chuk-chuk- neeeeeek!" These calls are very attractive to wildlife. Rob tells me he doesn't think we'll see any animals if I'm making so much noise, but he needs to bugger off. I learned this in the Outback.

12:00 I need to get some sustenance fast. A beetle carelessly lands on my shoulder and I snatch it up for a quick bite (boit). Eloise cringes because even though she's a fellow Aussie, she's from the city and has become a Vejjo. We grab ourselves a couple of sangers, and Hup goes into the bush for some wild berries. Rob's interest in berry taxonomy causes him to ask "what kind of berries are these?' and Hup tells him they're "red berries." I have a laugh over that. We eat our vegemite sandwiches with the crusts cut off and survive on that and red berries alone. Ominous sounds emanate out of the brush, but we aren't scared. We're bush people.

Eloise asks Hup to name a particular bird. "That one-- the one with shiny blue on it. What's he called?" she asks. Hup says it's a black drongo, and we have a bit of a giggle over that because where we're from a drongo is a drunken person. "hah hah, no worries mate!" I tell him, and Eloise looks annoyed. I turn to her and say "hey look! That's Rhino (Roy-now) dung in the road! In these parts, Rhinos always leave their dung in the same place. These Rhinos are extremely nearby!" I exclaim. Rob is now ignoring me, presumably because he doesn't want to scare the animals by responding to my antics.

Maybe it's the wild red berries or maybe I'm just due, but what Americans euphemize as "nature's call" is strong and I've forgotten my bogroll! I have to go to the dunnie way bad mate, and there's nothing here but croc infested swamp and high grass concealing all sorts of venomous snakes! It's very treacherous!
"Eloise! Do you have any toilet paper?" I plead.
"A real Australian would just use a leaf." she mumbles.
"Well, I'm not..."

Oh yeah. I suppose I have some shortcomings as an Australian, but it's still my first day and there's a learning curve. I can't go in the bushes! There might be bugs in there! Whatever! I know who I am! I walk over to the military post where we have stopped and ask them which way to the bathroom. My face must have betrayed my urgency, because they laughed heartily and pointed. Whatever again! I'll just do this and then go back to being a real bushman. As I wander over to the loo, I wonder whether I've crossed the line with my shenanigans. Will Eloise tell her friends that I was "cheeky"?

Even though I repeat my mantra of "no worries," these and other worries propel me back into my American wuss-dom.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

For Whomever-- With Love and SQUALOR

Hi! Arrived in India today! Wish you were here!

I hope this letter gets to you ok, because the mail service out here leaves something to be desired. I am sitting in a crowded bus station waiting for my train to Delhi. As with any spiritual journey, I have many questions profound and significant. Why is that woman lifting her young son in the air so that he can pee in the water fountain from which others are drinking? Why is there a cow inside the indoor bus station? I didn't think there was any room on this bench-- why is this strange man attempting to sit on my lap? Is that a dead body over there?

As I walk to ponder these questions and many more, an extremely loud car horn startles me and I look up momentarily instead of watching my feet as I go. Bad move. I step on something soft. It's a dead rat. There are many people peeing in the street, not very discreetly.

But it's the gross things you don't expect that are truly gross. I expect excrement of every concievable sort in the footpath. That's normal. I expect people of all ages and descriptions to regurgitate giant wads of multicolored phlegm onto the street. That's ok. I expect dead things all over and giant piles of burning garbage. Yeah. Somehow I find it shocking though to see an 80 year old woman playing with her naked breasts in the middle of the road. That was a little weird.

I'm having so much fun! I'm wishing you a Merry Christmas, and I hope everyone is well!

Oh yeah, and could you remember to feed the fish? Speaking of fish (and other animals) even though people are starving to death in the streets out here, no one messes with the cows who wander around and disrupt traffic, eating trash all day. Isn't that strange? I find it very interesting. The label on my water reminds the consumer to "kindly crush bottle after use" so I crush it up with great love and care and then toss it into the street.

Miss you! Say Hello to everyone for me!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

An exercise in Chivalry

Elephant Polo Championships? WTF Mate!

I thought I would be the only reporter at the World Championships of Elephant Polo, but I was scooped by some jackass from Playboy. Nonetheless, I consider it an important task to chronicle this event for The Fuck-It List, being that it was exactly the sort of postmodern fiasco I was directly seeking. So here goes:

When Hemingway said "there are only three true sports; Auto Racing, Bullfighting and Mountain Climbing. All the rest are children's games at which men play," he was definitely full of shit. A real man's game is elephant polo.

I enlisted the assistance of a Nepali friend of mine to journey to the outskirts of Royal Chitwan National Park, where we would catch the finale of this bizarre sport. We arrived a little late and our driver parks next to a long row of bicycles. Strangely, these are the only other vehicles aside from our Datsun with a statue of the many armed Vishnu glued to the dash. Apparently, people come from as many as eight miles away to watch the death-defying competition!

The game has already begun. We watch a pack of elephants lumber from one side of a square field demarcated with white chalk at the perimeter, chasing a tiny ball which white people swing at with sticks that must be about 12 feet long. The elephants shuffle over to the other corner of the field, and not very quickly I might add, after one guy successfully hits the ball. A loudspeaker announcer chronicles the action in a stuffy British accent. My companions and I ponder what is going on, but our different interpretations of the events remind me, ironically, of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. "I think he just scored a goal" says Eloise. "I think he just got scored on" says Rob, and we fight about it.

We are very unclear on who to root for. There is a USA team, but they were eliminated yesterday. Nearest I can tell, it's one Nepali team, the "Pukka Chukkas" versus another Nepali team, the "Tuskers." I burst into laughter when one elephant pauses to relieve himself. This takes quite awhile, and when the elephant is done, three men run onto the field with a stretcher like one would use to evacuate a wounded football player and scoop the giant turds away and off the field. Play continues as this operation is performed, since the turd scoopers (are they members of the "untouchables" caste?) will have plenty of time to move out of the way should the elephants chase the tiny ball and plod in their general direction.

The experience for me is a bit poignant because I can remember the exact situation wherein I last witnessed an elephant relieving himself. I was at the zoo with my father, in a time when the zoo was a very convenient and enjoyable Saturday activity, and thoughts of "are the animals happy in the zoo?" did not yet plague my seven-year-old brain. One of the elephants stops making noise or shuffling around to entertain the onlookers, and begins delivering what would remind anyone of military footage of a B-52 delivering it's payload over some civilian city proclaimed an enemy of America. "Pile it on there pal" my dad says, which is sufficiently hilarious for both my brother and myself to laugh in unison for the next 5 minutes, briefly forgetting that he put gum in my hair and he told on me and he did it first.

The elephants chase the polo ball and become entangled in one furious clump of 12-foot-long sticks swinging. One polo club breaks and someone rushes onto the field to replace it. The announcer notes that "this is the third broken stick in the last three minutes." This is because all of the elephants are now in one big stick swinging tussle, and no one is moving. Uneventfully, the game ends. We have no idea who won, our feelings of nationalism quelled by our disappointment in the American team who had lost 2 days earlier. I'm not surprised as it would be just as implausible for Americans to practice their sport with real elephants as for Jamaicans to practice on real ice. I find out later that they simulate elephant polo by riding atop their landrovers and swinging clubs.

We move in the general direction of the great waves of onlookers, thinking there must be some pomp and circumstance yet to be witnessed. It's the award ceremony where the British announcer guy is calling for "three cheers for Jim Edwards" who is the pith helmet wearing Brit who founded the sport, head of WEPA (World Elephant Polo Association), and owns "Tiger Tops" the prestigious hotel where many of the elephants are housed. They actually do the "hip-hip-hooray" three times, which conjures up another childhood memory—I won't say which one, and Jim Edwards, "the most chivalrous man on earth," comes out to give a speech. He gives out many awards, one to the reigning champions, the Scottish team who are led by their number one player, the Thirteenth Duke of Argyll. Of course all of this is hearsay because I can't see through the crowd.

All of this talk of chivalry inspires me to lift Eloise onto my shoulders so at least one of us can see. She says "there are signs. They say 'live with chivalry.' The elephants are lined up in a row. They seem to be giving some sort of prize." Seeing our genuine desire to be part of the action, our Nepali friend "Hup" suggests we muscle our way through the ropes and into the inner circle. After all, we're white—we'll get away with it.

We sit behind the New York team, recognizable by their metro-sexual style uniforms. So far, the ceremonies have lasted longer than the actual game. The "Master of the Royal House in Scotland" presents the "Golden Moment" award. I wish my brother was here. He'd say "golden moment? That's my favorite kind of porn." The award itself is a sort of trophy depicting a polo player atop an elephant, leaning aggressively off the side of the beast, as if at high speed, something we didn't see anyone doing. They give the Nepali team a prize for winning, but instead of a trophy, they give the team captain a goat, which he hoists into the air. He's stoked to have a goat, and I'm sure he wonders why the Brits in the background are chuckling in their restrained way.

The German woman seated next to me asks me to explain this word "chivalry." I try my best, not really understanding the concept very well myself. I try to tell her that it means "politeness" but to me there are extensive connotations of sexist behavior, the sort which women often appreciate, as if to say "yes, I like the chair scooted out for me and then pushed in once I have seated myself." I say "it's good manners, especially toward women" and I explain that the knights of the round table used to protect the queen and they had this code, and as I'm saying it, I can't recall how much of this "knowledge" I'm preaching is pure elephant shit.

The "New York Blues" as they're called, go up to the front to accept their "best dressed award." They look silly in their matching white pants, aviator shades, red ball caps and blue vests, but I can assume that this look was carefully planned. Compared to the pith-helmet guy they are the best dressed. "We couldn't go home if we didn't win this one," one of them leans over and says to me.

Lastly, they pay tribute to the "packies." I assume this is less a British slur for Pakistani and more an abbreviation for Pachyderm. Jim Edwards salutes the elephants with "ramro hati, dane baht" I think, which means "beautiful elephant, thank you." All of the elephants hoot or snort or whatever you call that noise they make. A host of zoo related memories once again churn through my elephant brain.

We shuffle over to the car, and I open the door for Eloise, having just learned the importance of chivalry and proud, by virtue of my skin color, to be part of a vast imperialistic tradition.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The enumerated shortcomings of a newly retired American schoolteacher (Part 1 in a series)

Chapter One: Laziness
I have fond memories of my first year as a teacher. When sixth period would roll around every day, I would pretend to teach something, the students would pretend to learn it, and we would go on with our lives. I would spend the rest of the period with a broom that I used as an air guitar and rock out to The Killers or some other band that I would blast over the ipod speaker, my most valued educational tool, and they would go on with their work, annoyed but gradually learning to ignore me. The bell would ring, and they would leave. I would stamp some papers with a custom made stamp that proclaimed “this is the most original paper I have ever read.” This message was a lie. Often, I never read those papers.

I was never a very good teacher. This was mostly because I refused to take the job seriously, and I always insisted on having fun, sometimes at the expense of the educational experience I was paid to provide. But my idiosyncrasies as a teacher, despite the personal shortcomings they revealed, were ironically what attracted many of my students to my classroom. I was always surprised when the pain-in-the-ass student who made my life hell all day long would inevitably say at the end of the year “this is like, my favorite class” like some sort of awkward thankyou or reluctant religious confession. As one student put it in a note she wrote to me at the end of the year “from your choice of wardrobe to your unabashed refusal to wash your car, your whole demeanor was something completely foreign to me. You as my English teacher were someone I simply couldn't understand for a very long time, maybe not until it was too late in the year for it to matter.” That pretty much sums it up.

When some friends of mine in Kathmandu suggested that I volunteer at a remote school near the beginning of the Everest trek, I hesitated thinking that I could screw these kids up really bad. American kids are resilient; they’re used to the lack of sanity displayed by their adult counterparts in the schools. Nepali children might not bounce back from being exposed to an English teacher like me. But when my friend Ritik voiced his intention to teach them the theme song from “Family Ties” I figured I might fit in with plans like that.

On the morning when we were supposed to leave for the village of Deusa, I read the following article in “The Himalayan” an English-language newspaper in Kathmandu.

Wild Boar in School
NAWAL PARASI—A school was shut on Monday afternoon after a wild boar suddenly came out of the jungle and ran amok on the school premises. Teachers of Bhimsen High School in Devchuli vacated the staff room at the sight of the wild boar. Though the wild boar was overpowered, nobody has come to collect it from the forest office or Chitwan National Park, said a school source.

As my companions for this educational exchange mused on what mishaps they could expect out of this adventure, I pointed out how funny I thought it was that the writer of this article used the phrase “wild boar” repetitively, when many synonyms exist. “You are an English teacher” said the girl. “Not any more” I replied, and as they discussed the various logistics and their apprehensions regarding the trip, I spaced out and quietly mused on how funny I thought it was that the three brands of bottled water that sat on our table at the cafe were called “Thirst-Pi,” “Thirst-TA,” and “Aquasoon.” That shit cracks me up.
Chapter 2: Mental garbage

I paid attention whenever the girl talked. She mentioned many of the things that she had heard about the school and cited the informational literature we had recently received from the British woman who was orchestrating our volunteerism, mentioning that she was particularly interested in this sentence "government teachers receive some training, though the value of this is dubious, especially on observing teaching methods, which tend to be very traditional and using a lecture learn by rote style." She wondered what we would be expected to do as products of western schools. Would we be teaching the teachers?

She introduced herself as Eloise. Eloise, Eloise from Australia, Eloise. I recited this in my head in the manner of someone trying to remember the name of someone recently introduced. My mind ran through the permutations of her name as she talked. Eloise. "El." "eez?" My mind turned to some ridiculous lyrics from a rap song I remembered from college-- "now flippin the cell that's right i had to call up L. yo L what up? i hit, what else, plus dope, say word." Although I could not have told you the name of that song nor the artist nor any of the lyrics that followed, it helped me to remember Eloise's name. Unfortunately, like so much trash littering the trail on the hike to the school, that stupid song was always there, unwelcome, whenever I thought of her name after that. I sang those lyrics in my head as she talked. Although I didn't hear what she was saying, it was nice to watch her lips move.

Chapter 2.5 : Fear
Eloise doesn't like airplanes. In Nepal, the frequent flier has good reason for this. Earlier this season, on the flight to Lukla I got my climbing helmet out of my backpack and buckled it tightly for the landing, causing not laughter (the desired response) but consternation among my fellow worried travellers. They gave me looks as if to say "I wish I had a helmet." It is not uncommon on these flights to be extremely relieved upon landing safely, as if continuing to breathe was somehow unexpected. On this flight I looked out the window, completely enthralled, only to notice that we were flying over foothills and I could see below me..... no it? Yes, that's a goat. We weren't very high off the ground, which was unnerving for Eloise who was now hiding her head inside her scarf trying to ignore the vomiting child in the adjacent seat. Child psychologists claim that when a child of a certain age closes their eyes in a game of "peekaboo" they are actually entering a sort of epistemological dilemma wherein the world actually disappears and ceases to exist when they close their eyes. That's the type of useless knowledge one acquires in teacher training-- the sort of thing that has no practical application whatever to the modern school environment. The useless nature of this fact notwithstanding, it is my theory that Eloise was trying to eliminate the "gravity" of the flight to Kangil by playing "peekaboo" until we landed safely, at which point everyone started clapping. Then it was safe for Eloise to open her eyes and allow the world to come back to life.

Chapter 3: Short attention Span

We then started the trek to Deusa which would take about 6 hours, all told. Strangely enough, we passed only one other school in the time it took to walk what must have been about 12 miles or so. To me, this meant that many of the students we would meet at the Deusa school would be walking six miles each day to receive their education, reminding me of everyone's grandpa who claims "you kids don't have any idea how good you've got it" and citing his daily march 12 miles through the snow uphill each way, or so the story goes.

When I tire of walking, which takes about 20 minutes, I ask a local man where we are. When he doesn't understand me, I ask "are we there yet? Are we in Deusa?" When I need to simlify it further, I point to the ground and say "Deusa?" and he says "yes, Deusa." I would repeat this query several times with the same response as we walked for the next 5 hours, all the while in Deusa. I probably should’ve read the promotional informational literature we were given which states “the village covers a very large area, taking maybe 3-4 hours to walk from one end to the other.” But I have a short attention span.
Chapter 4: Judgmental
We were guided along the trail by several teachers from the school who probably should’ve been at work. Who would teach the children? What about the children? Don’t these people care about the children? They introduced themselves and we noticed that most of their names ended in “Rai” which meant that they were from the Rai tribe, ethnic group or whatever. They were not Sherpas, which meant that they were probably even more impoverished than the porters up-valley toward the Everest massif, who make a good deal of money from tourists like us.
I’ve heard it said that there are three national religions in Nepal—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tourism. When we finally arrived at the place where we would lodge ourselves for the next 7 days, we found out that the hotel proprietors adhered to none of these, but rather had been introduced (rather unfortunately in my opinion) to the religion of the white imperialists, Christianity. Unwilling to give their newborn a traditional name, but apparently completely willing to make her a pariah for life, they had christened her “Evangelina.” I knew they were not Hindu when I did not observe the many depictions of the various deities of Hinduism, as is typical in Hindu households. Later when we discovered a huge hairy spider right above the bed where I was to spend the night, we asked for assistance from the hotel proprietor to help this lovely creature on its way. He saw the spider on the wall, and promptly removed his shoe which he used to end the inherently miserable life of said spider. This is when I learned that they weren’t Buddhists.

Chapter 5: Arrogant
What followed the next day was possibly one of the strangest experiences of my life.
We walk 45 minutes to the school accompanied by one of the teachers, Tej Rai, who has insisted on guiding us. As we approach the schoolhouse , we notice that many students are lined up on a soccer field sized grassy area enclosed by the school buildings which resemble the “portable” trailer style classrooms that everyone complained about at Salinas High, except they’re made out of mud. “Why are the students lined up there like that?” we ask. Tej Rai, an English teacher whose English sounded abysmal to us (like how I imagine an American Spanish teacher must sound to the ears of a Spaniard) replied that the students who come to school dirty or late must line up like this every day. “That’s a lot of dirt late kids” we remarked as we plodded down trail. We found out soon that Tej Rai had lied to us. Those students were lined up like that so that they could meet us.

We were led into the middle of the courtyard where there were 300 or so children of various ages arranged in lines from youngest to eldest standing at attention and awaiting the wisdom of the western teachers. Tej Rai motioned to two chairs in front of the whole assembly and we were told to sit. The headmaster, Yadav Sir, a stern looking man as headmasters go, said some things in Nepali which elicited smiles and laughter from the assembled kids who relaxed their attentive stances a little. Then, one by one, like some scene from an ancient past reminiscent of a lost time when western explorers first reached a distant and forbidden land, the children marched forward and gave us gifts. First, they draped around our necks a piece of ceremonial cloth which had been blessed by a lama. This was my fourth blessed cloth this month, so I wasn’t surprised, but the gifts kept coming as children of various ages marched timidly in our direction. Next they bestowed upon our itchy necks wreaths of flowers picked from local bushes too high upon the branches to be reached by the ravenous goats of the region. One by one, more flower wreaths were placed around our necks until I was actually worried I would have an allergic reaction and my airway would close up. It reminded me very much of a scene from a favorite movie of mine, Joe versus the Volcano, where the strange natives of an island doomed by an angry volcano shower Joe Banks with gifts before making him jump into the lava to save their island from the wrath of “Waponi Woo.” I felt a sense of impending doom.
Chapter 6: Non-conformist
The students then marched to their various classrooms to the furious beat of a drum, and we were ushered into the staff lounge where we sat with the other teachers with no particular sense of urgency. Eloise picked up a Nepali-English dictionary, and performed what I like to call a “dictionary-dip” wherein the “dipper” opens the book to a random page and points at a word with his or her eyes closed. This word will foretell your immediate future. The word was “non-conformist.”

Eloise asks Mohan Shrestha, another English teacher educated in Darjeeling, what the plan is for the day and he replies with frantic hand gestures “no, no, no, no plan.” This is more in line with my philosophy, so I’m ok with it, but Eloise looks mortified. Mohan says “ok, lets go” and we march over to a small mud room with a tin roof and a big red 8 painted on the wall. It’s the eighth grade, but the students range in age from 13 to 18. As we enter, all of the students stand and greet us in unison with something that translates to “hello master.” Mohan introduces us in Nepali, tells them to sit and then grabs me by the hand to take me elsewhere. Eloise and I attempt a protest, not wanting to be separated in this strange place, but he insists and I depart for the ninth grade as she sends me a look of desperation which communicated “don’t leave me here” very clearly and urgently. But I was dragged away to another classroom to do what I do so well-- torturing students without having developed a plan in advance.

The first step is to "access prior knowledge." I could tell from the blank looks and vacant stares that this wasn't very extensive. The first step is to "access prior knowledge." I could tell from the blank looks and vacant stares that this wasn't very extensive. I wrote some basic questions up on the blackboard and had them write the answers.
What is your name?
Where do you live?
Do you have brothers and sisters?
How many animals do you have?

These were things which they all had in common as the Rai men and women are breeders and no family is smaller than 10 people. They also seem to have extensive knowledge of animals. This discussion led to a lesson on singular versus plural because none of the children seems to have a very good grip on these concepts. I wrote the following sentence on the board as an example: I have three chickens, four goats, one cat, one dog, two cows and four…” I paused in writing the sentence when I realized that the plural of “ox” is not “oxes” but “oxen.” Dammit! These are the kinds of things that really confuse a non-native English speaker. A bell rang and another teacher arrived to take my place.

I went to the next classroom, as it is the custom for the teachers to move from class to class rather than making the students move around, and wrote Sonnet 14 (“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) on the board. I made them copy it and say it in unison, which seemed like a good way to work on pronunciation. When Mohan arrived and saw what I had done he said “John, I would like to discuss your teaching.” I had heard this several times before from principals and department chairs, and it was usually not a good thing. Once, it heralded the arrival of the secret service. Another time, a student who thought me to be irresponsible reported to the principal that I had delivered a sexist joke. In the meeting with my principal that ensued I defended myself in the manner of Alberto Gonzales claiming “I do not recall” over and over when questioned as to what I had said. I never admitted that I said “with so many battered women out there, why am I always eating mine plain?” Dear reader, lest you decide to judge me, I’ll swear it was related to our curriculum.

Turns out Mohan wanted suggestions. He led me out into the courtyard for lunch which consisted of a giant pile of oranges. As testament to the landfill of mental garbage that clutters my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about an incident from a tv show I had recently witnessed. Mohan droned on about planning and teaching and such and I thought about this woman on television being asked to name a word that rhymes with orange.
Interviewer: name a word that rhymes with orange.
Woman: Ummm…. Morange?
Interviewer: ok. Can you define ‘morange’?
Woman: more oranges? Please?
I looked up from my pile of peels and Mohan was looking at me having just asked a question, awaiting my answer. “Umm, yeah. I think you’ve got a good school here.” He looked at me skeptically and we ate “morange” is silence.

Chapter 7: Busy

Luckily, the next day was a holiday. Of the seven or eight days we spent in Deusa, at least half were holidays. They work hard there, but they can play hard too.
We were brought to a big rock outcropping above the school where they believe holy things reside. There was a tarp with bamboo poles at the ends which created a makeshift shelter which sheltered several “Shamans” from the unforgiving mountain sun. The Shamans wore ceremonial garb consisting of a feather headdress, long robes with bells attached and colorful strings of beads. Before Rob And Ritik arrived, both ER doctors from Seattle, these holy men were the healers for the village. When we arrived at the festival they were busy healing themselves with copious amounts of “chang” a homemade rice beer, which isn’t bad—not bad at all.
Rob was thinking a lot about his ex girlfriend-- a situation which I completely understand because I too had something irreparably stuck in my head-- "now flippin the cell that's right i had to call up L. yo L what up? i hit, what else, plus dope, say word." So when he wanted to talk about it, I would indulge him. But on this occasion, fueled by chang and the unbridled enthusiasm of a truly strange experience, Rob said something like "it's a unique opportunity we have here, and I can't sit here brooding. So I say 'fuck it' and start dancing. I never dance." It was a sentiment which met with my approval. Ritik and Rob danced with the Nepali women who clapped out a rhythm and sang the "yosum pididi" song which, in 1999 on my first visit to Nepal, I imagined translated to "let's all be cheery/let's all be cheery/ smoke ganja on Naya Kanga/ let's all be cheery." I couldn't help but think-- hey it's midweek, shouldn't you people be working? Haven't you heard that famous Puritan-American parable about the lazy farmer who says he'll sew his seeds later? As farmers, these Rai people would know--perhaps it isn't really true.
Chapter 8: Unholy
K. P. Rai took me up to the caves where there were some ceremonies going on to stop the landslides (the Nepali equivalent of Waponi Woo) which had plagued Deusa in the past. K.P. (whose name is a lot longer, but unpronouncable by Americans so he used this convenient abbreviation) escorted me up to the caves and gave me a tour sort of. Her paused in his explanations to say (and I quote) “John, this is God” as if he were introducing a familiar friend. He led me down into the entrance of the rock cave, through a dark and forbidding maw of rock into a rather unimpressive cranny through which sunlight filtered and some sticks of incense burned, the sharpened end of the sticks stabbed into an orange. Flower petals were strewn and butter lamps burned next to God. But as is so typical of God, he (or she) didn’t actually do anything. We walked a few meters to another cave entrance with more butter lamps and some Rais bowed and prostrated themselves once again in front of a dirty rock face. To them, everything is God.
To be continued.... (if I feel like it).