January Hyderabad Update

January 16th, 2008

So another month has gone by bringing me to my sixth month in this culture swap living in Hyderabad, India. I wish I could say time has flown, but I think the combination of my need for constant reflection and evaluation of my time here has made me painfully aware of every single day.

December in the US is usually an exciting time for me- I love (I am realizing now) the holiday “cheer”, music, decorations, the crazed shopping, and the chocolates everywhere you look. December in India has no feel at all. We did have a holiday – bakrid – where we brought home two goats, slaughtered them in the driveway, cooked Biryani until 4, stuffed our faces and then slept the sleep of deep food coma… but that’s just not the same as Christmas and New Years at home, ya know?

The highlight of December was definitely the visit of Sarah and Lisa, two teachers from the school I worked at last year and have spent the greater part of this year recovering from. They were a breath of fresh American air. I forgot how American I am, and how much I really do fit in best with Americans. I never would have thought so, but in a recent conversation my friend Lynn commented that America has a way of making people feel less welcome and less like they fit in than they actually do. I think that is definitely the case for me.

So with these gals Akbar and I went on another holiday. We’ve been averaging one cool trip per month, and this month’s was a doozy. We showed them around Hyderabad, where all these raunchy guys asked to have their picture taken with them. Even though we said no we could see them taking cell phone snaps as we walked away. The girls got a lot of attention like that- because Indians LOVE white skin. It’s odd the way they worship it. The drugstores here are filled with aisles and aisles of products like Fair & Lovely and Lightening Tonic- creams, soaps and bleaches to lighten skin.

We were worried about how Akbar’s family would react to the Americans, but they were curious and delighted and excited to have them. His mother cooked up a feast – unable to speak English it’s how she communicates – with fresh shrimp and deep fried vegetables. We had to fight both food coma and jet lag to leave the house again to continue our adventures. We went on from Hyderabad to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I would go into detail about those places here, but Akbar has been working for hours writing detailed blog posts about each day of our trip, so I’m going to let you guys read the details there: http://akbarpasha.wordpress.com/. But I will say that for me the highlight of the whole journey was seeing Gandhi’s memorial in Delhi. A solitary black tomb stone marks the spot where he was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist, and an eternal flame commemorates the light Gandhi’s life and teachings continue to shine on this country today. Gandhi will always be one of the few people I respect and revere – so I felt it fitting to steel a great big rock to bring home with me.

There are many hilarious stories that came up on our trip, but I think the hero of this 10 day tour was definitely Akbar. A quiet guy who prefers browsing on his laptop to interaction with people, Akbar spent 10 solid days with 3 girls who never ran out of things to say. I’m not quite sure how he handled it. Around day 8 he looked at me in the morning and said- I think I’m going to get my period soon. Because India is still working on gender equality, it is a country that naturally separates men and women on many fronts. This means that when we got into an auto (a cab that’s actually an economical lawn mower with a bright yellow roof, no doors, and a greasy man driving in the front, equipped with seats to fit 3 people but typically seen with about 25 people jammed in) Akbar had to snuggle with the driver in the front. And because they’re not so weird about men touching here as in the US, the auto drivers had no problem snuggling back. In this way Akbar was molested and felt up by many men on our world tour – ask him about it, he loves to re-live it.

Perhaps the best story that came out of our segregation was our day-long Vipassana meditation in Rajasthan. Sarah really wanted to do some meditation or yoga in India. I understand the draw- when I was planning my trip here I too imagined doing those things, and then quickly abandoned them when I saw the third-world-style in which these classes are conducted. I had my doubts, but it was free and in a beautiful ashram on the hills, so we decided to go. When I called in the morning to confirm the directions and the time, the non-English speaking gentleman who answered shouted “Call back. 1 years.” I think he meant 1 hour. We were welcomed in typical Indian fashion – no information, no overview, no one to explain to us the expectations of the day… we were directed to sit in the meditation hall, so that’s where we went. After about an hour of sitting in a cold, dark room, a man came in to get things started. And by get things started, I mean he switched on a recording of a very old man who would be leading us via cassette for the next 8 hours of this day. Uh-oh. He (the tape-man) switched between an undecipherable Hindi and an even more unrecognizable English. After an hour I got fed up and went to sit outside in the sun- where peacocks, parrots and humming birds were having a field day. The rest of the group emerged hours later for the lunch break. I don’t know how much meditation everyone was doing. I know I napped and watched peacocks. We talked for a moment about leaving, but because the girls and guys are not allowed to interact (and we’re technically not supposed to talk either) we were strictly told to split up and shut up. So the comedy begins after lunch, and must be prefaced with the fact that Sarah was obsessed with taking pictures during our trip. So the scene is that I am napping by the peacocks by this time joined by Lisa. Sarah and Akbar are at it hard core in the cold dark room with the tape-man, and Sarah comes out in a few minutes with the message that she is ready to leave. She says she’ll try to get Akbar, but I tell them that Akbar is really hard core about meditation- I bet he’s in the sixth level of samadhi by now. She goes in, can’t get his attention and comes back out.

Later we hear from Akbar that somewhere around lunch he too was fed up and frustrated with the tape-man, and decided he wanted to leave. He noticed Sarah outside with her camera, and mouthed my name to her- so she could come get me. Sarah obliviously took his picture, waved, and went on to her next shot. Immediately after she disappears, a stern-looking Indian man, clearly a Vipassana expert, snaps his fingers and summons Akbar. Then he basically cusses him out for trying to hit on a white chick, and yells at him for talking. Akbar tells him that he wants to leave, and the man tells him he cannot, because this is a full day meditation session. Akbar tells him that he is with a group and he needs to talk with them, and again the man refuses to help him out. So poor Akbar, scolded and insulted returns to the cold dark tape-man room. Poor guy. We cheered hip up with Pizza Hut at the end of the day- how else would you end a day of meditation in Rajasthan?