Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Incognito

The saris here are so beautiful that each one could make you fall down and die. And there are hundreds of them.

For the actual wedding, I wore a sari. I was apprehensive about it, worried about looking like a tool. But in truth I stood out so much in western clothes on the first night (it was just me and the Chicagoans/Australians) that wearing a sari was the right choice.

We picked up the sari from the tailor, who charged only 135 rupees ($4) for all that work. the blouse fit perfectly. Having no idea how to wear a sari, I wore regular clothes to the main hotel, where I would get help from someone to put it on.

One of the cousins helped me. I put on the petticoat (a long cotton skirt that the sari gets tucked in to) and the blouse (on which I had misidentified front and back), and then she helped me put on the sari.


She started by tucking an edge into my waist on the right side, the tucking it all the way around. When she got back to the front, she folded several layers into pleats together, and tucked that portion into the front of my waist and pinned the folded portion together with a jeweled pin. Then she draped it over my left shoulder and pinned it up at either shoulder. the rest of the fabric draped over my left arm. She showed me how to hold it when I walk. For the finishing touch, she put a pink sparkly bindi on my forehead.


The sari was a big hit. Mrs. Sharda (Auntie) - the woman who helped me put everything together - said it was a very Rajasthani sari, with the bright colors and the tie-and-dye color pattern.






At the wedding ceremony, I got lots of questions of whether I was feeling comfortable in the sari. I can see why it would be difficult - it is a lot of fabric, you hold part of it in your left hand, and you have to move carefully - but I actually found it to be very comfortable. It is very beautiful but not revealing. In western dresses you're always worried about being exposed by a slipping strap or a short skirt. In a sari, there is no such problem, and as long as you move with the fabric, it feels quite nice.








The sisters, my new friends from the Chak & Mamera, found me while we were waiting for the procession in the tented hallway, which was soaked from the rain, packed with people and extremely stuffy. They held my hands, smiled and tilted their heads, clucking in pride over my sari. They said I looked like an Indian. I said I was still sweating like an American.





The first night, in my western dress, I got stared at constantly, and everyone was curious to know who I was. I was told that the prevailing theory was that I was Anita's sister-in-law, Mike's sister. Which is interesting, since I am not Korean. But they insisted there was a resemblance. The second night, in the sari, I got significantly fewer curious stares. Still some, but I felt much less out of place. The only comments I got were the surprise over my toe ring (which I had forgotten all about because I've had it so long) - not because it was there, but where was the one on the other side?!? And also there was much concern over my lack of bangles. I had six- three on each arm - that Anita lent me, but the women here usually wear many bangles covering both forearms.
















I didn't feel silly in the sari at all. On the contrary, it was like learning a few words in a foreign language. No matter how much you screw up the pronunciation, people appreciate that you made the effort.

Monsoon Wedding, Part 1

The wedding was 2 days long. The first day, there was a brunch at noon (which started at 1pm, of course) at which I met the bride's cousins, from Chicago and Australia. They were fresh off the plane and very enthusiastic.

At 4pm (5pm), there was the Chak & Mamera, a ceremony on the rooftop which involved, as far as I could tell, all the women at the wedding walking around the rooftop in a circle, then sitting on mats in one area (the men were on chairs, watching or chatting).




















Then some of the women put brightly decorated pots on their heads, there was some drumming and dancing, and everyone walked around the rooftop again (except the women who were getting tired or bored).


video



At one point, I sat on a plastic chair near the grandmother, because no one else was there and it was a good location to take photos. Three nearly identical women came and sat in the chairs around me. I tried to stand to give them my seat, but they were having none of it. They held my arm to keep me in the chairs with them. We had a nice talk with limited vocabulary and lots of smiling. They are the sisters of the father of the groom, and by the end of the ceremony, we were best friends.

After the ceremony we ate almonds and yogurt, and drank chai. Then everyone headed over in cars to another hotel. There, there was a long tented entrance hallway, opening onto a huge area that contained a stage with seating facing the stage, as well as dining tables in a non-covered area. Surrounding the dining area, there were many buffet stations featuring countless food options. As we sat at the tables, four or five waiters hovered three feet away, and every two minutes or so, approached to offer this or that. I had no idea what they were offering, sinceit was all in Hindi. One waiter apparently thought I spoke Hindi (maybe my nodding was a little too convincing) and kept coming up and offering long lists of things. I tried to explain that I didn't understand, but it was futile. So I started nodding to everything, and got tray after tray of tiny plastic bowls filled with various spicy and sweet foods. Everything was delicious.




Eventually we moved over to the stage area, where family members performed dances from Bollywood movies for the couple.
Most of the performers were young children, who were surprisingly brave and very focused on their dance moves. There were also some adults who performed.





The bride performed an outstanding dance, all the more impressive for doing it the incredibly heavy, jewel-laden and gorgeous sari she was wearing at the time.

video

After that was stick dancing, were everyone takes 2 sticks on the dance floor, and 2 people bang their sticks together in slow rhythm. Totally confusing, but fun.


video

Then there was just raucous dancing. Bollywood songs, Bhangra and remixed Shakira played while everyone, young and old, filled the dance floor until the party was over.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Henna

On Saturday, Reda (the bride) and Anita were getting their henna done, and they offered to let me have a little done as well, if I was interested. Interested?? For Anita, this event is ho-hum, even a pain in the neck. For me, it was quite exciting.

video

Reda's took 5 hours, but it was spectacular. I took about a hundred million pictures. Then she had to sit and not do anything for another 4 hours. The henna is exquisitely intricate, and they completely blacken the fingertips, so it is impossible to touch anything. It also went up past her elbows, so she couldn't even bend her arms. Forget about going to the bathroom. Dehydration is key.























Anita's took about an hour - after a certain point she just got bored and made them stop.



I got simple designs that were relatively quick to do on my hands and feet.
















The henna goes on like cake icing, then dries and hardens into a dark brown/black flaky substance. Any time you move, some of the black cakes off. But the longer you leave it on, the darker and more brilliant the color comes out. So we watched TV (with my fingertips free, I could change the channel), paced and very carefully drank chai until 7pm. Then we cleared off Reda's palms and most of our arms by scraping off the dried henna, and rubbing with oil. Reda left on all of it except the palms until the next morning.

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

The autorickshaw we took to go to the tailor drove from the hotel, down a hill and over the bridge that crosses one of the several lakes in Udaipur, down a few paved roads and then headed into the streets in the City Palace area (the main touristy and shopping area) which are extremely narrow alleyways. No cars are allowed, and probably autorickshaws shouldn't be, as the alley was only a few inches wider than the autorickshaw.
If a bicycle was on the same street (there is no such thing as one-way traffic here), it would have to back out to let us pass. And since might makes right, they always did. Even pedestrians sometimes had to hop into storefronts to escape our path. It felt like being on one of those Disney World rides where you are in a little car on a track, and you swing around turns and it feels like you are going to hit the thing right in front of you but you suddenly sweep to the side within inches of the object. I stopped counting the close calls, because really it was just one long close call. The cows wandering around (yes, of course) seemed unimpressed, and usually let us pass without batting an eye, although once one cow stayed in the middle of the road, so of course we bonked it with the front of the autorickshaw. I swear I saw it roll its eyes before it lumbered aside.

So Sari

Apparently when you buy a sari you have to finish it yourself.

After arriving in Udaipur and breathing a sigh of relief that Anita and her mom didn't think I had been totally ripped off buying the sari, we made arrangements for me to go to a tailor to do the finishings. Anita's mother's friend, whom I was instructed to call Auntie, came to pick me up in an autorickshaw and we headed to town (for that adventure, see the next post).

I had brought my backpack to have the back panels fixed where they had worn away and the rubbery cushioning was coming through. We first stopped at a shop where there were many Indian backpacks (popular with kids here are these rectangular backpacks that strap onto their backs horizontally) and bags. The man agreed to fix it for 90 rupees.

Then we headed to another shop (shop being basically a tiny cramped stand) filled to the ceiling with folded cloths of every color and shade. We picked the color of the petticoat that I will wear underneath the sari (“we” meaning Auntie and the tall lanky man running the shop. I stood there watching them. If anyone looked at me, I nodded vigorously), and the color of the lining. Apparently one edge of the sari is unfinished and you have to finish it. I don't know why.

After picking our fabrics, we went to another shop, that was a mostly empty room that was slightly larger than the other shops, so you could actually enter, and so we took off our shoes. It was in a corner, so it had open doors on 2 walls, which was nice. This was the tailor. Actually, he was the blouse specialist, as Auntie explained. His grandfather and father had also been tailors, all specializing only in making the blouse for saris. The sari comes with the material for the blouse, and it my case it has sparkly rhinestones in the area that is supposed to go over your arms, but otherwise it is just a rectangle of fabric. Auntie and the tailor talked for a long time in Hindi, often picking up an edge of the sari and thrusting it dramatically or waving their arms in the direction of locations outside the shop. It sounded like they were arguing, but as I have learned, it always does and they usually aren’t. My guess is that he was telling her that he only does the blouse, and where to do the rest of the tailoring.

Eventually he took my measurements. Auntie asked me details, like if it was ok if the stomach was open, and whether I wanted the back to dip, and whether I wanted the front neckline like this or like that. Like I have a clue. I told her I trusted her opinion.

Then we went to the other tailor, who had an indoor shop filled with saris. There was a front entranceway where we took off our shoes, and then a larger room inside with a cushioned mat. There were many customers - women in saris – in the store. We quickly asked him to hem it with the lining we had chosen. This would cost 20 rupees (50 cents!).

We picked up my backpack, which was repaired much better than I expected, with black patches over the eroded areas. He wanted an additional 50 rupees, which I paid. Then we headed back. Auntie was so nice, offering to take me anywhere else I needed, and she said I could call her the next day if I needed help shopping. She said we would have to pick up the sari on Sunday morning – the shops are closed but the tailor would be there so we could pick it up.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Good price for you my friend

Shopping in Jaipur was an educational experience. From now on, I will remember this mantra: Listen to the book, not the people. It was what Lauren and Chris, my nice new friends from Atlanta, had told me about getting through the railway station in Delhi, but it turned out to be exactly true for shopping. In Jaipur, I found it safe to assume that almost everyone was trying to rip me off, no matter how nice they seemed. My New York bullshit meter came in handy.

Lauren, Chris and I set off with a young autorickshaw driver they had met who spoke excellent English and was highly entertaining.


We offered him a reasonable price to take us around for the day. I was a little suspicious when he said "Money doesn't matter." That is never, ever true.
From reading my guidebook, I had a list of stores I wanted to visit to check prices. There were several stores that are cooperatives and offer good working conditions, health benefits and a living wage in their factories. There was also a government emporium containing a wide variety of goods at reasonable prices. After I had seen those prices, I wanted to check out the market, where we would have to bargain.

Our autorickshaw driver was opposed to this at every turn, and although he was consistently nice and entertaining, I became increasingly suspicious. At every stop he would tell us, yet again, that he knew of a place on the outskirts of town which is where they make the goods and they will give us the wholesale local price and we can see the factory and blah blah blah. I, for one, have no interest in seeing the woodblock print factory (it sounds like one of those boring trips you take in elementary school), and I have no illusions that I will ever get the local price for anything.

I insisted on my itinerary, increasingly firm about my agenda. The driver started to joke with me, realizing that I was the major barrier in his game (Chris and Lauren are Very Nice people. I am not). He tried to tell us that the government emporium was private and extremely expensive. He toed the line of insulting me, saying I must be very rich to afford such inflated prices. I told him that I couldn't afford swindlers. And I smiled.

The government emporium was not private, and in fact had very reasonable prices and quality goods. I ended up buying a sari for the wedding (in colors I never imagined I would wear without Mom forcing me) and Chris and Lauren bought woodblock prints. I had also bought a couple of things in the other stores, so that anything from the market was extra, and I could walk away from a bad bargain.

We then went to the market, where there are cramped dark stalls lined up, packed with goods. Stalls had either clothing, jewellery or shoes. (The stalls for other things are in different areas.) I found it to me much less intense than market shopping in Kenya, where they hassle you until you have a meltdown, coming closer and closer and getting louder and louder, and they follow you when you walk away. They hassle you some in Jaipur, but after 2 or 3 tries, if you ignore them, they quiet down and mostly just hold random items up or hover. If you have a strong will, and some might say I do, you can just look at the things you want and ignore the distraction easily. I liked some of the cheap sandals, but they wanted exorbitant prices. What would have been probably 10 or 20 rupees for a local, I offered 100 rupees and they wanted 450. Fuhgettaboudit.


One young tout approached me and, completely unprompted, said "Hola, que tal?" I thought that was so funny that he followed us around, popping up periodically to say something else in Spanish. I decided to lie to people when people in stores or on the street asked personal information, so I told them I was from Mexico, and Chris and Lauren lied for me as well. At one point, everyone in one stall started speaking to us in Spanish, and the next stall overheard and, as we passed, shouted to us in Spanish, and the next stall, and the next. For about 7 stalls in a row, we got spoken to only in Spanish, without saying a word. Chris tried to explain that he was American, but to no avail.

Another young boy spoke to me in Spanish, and said he knew many languages. So I said "Parlez-vous francais?" Which he didn't. Then I said "Ich bin ein Berliner." Which just left him dumbfounded. Good thing he didn't actually speak either of those, or he would have called my bluff.

Our driver waited patiently, although gave Chris some guilt about wanting to go to his special place, but I had no guilt. In the end I got a couple of things, but I had gotten more in the stores, where the quality was much better and there was no hassle. I wish I had gotten more in the stores. The reality is that we couldn't get better prices in the market because we are tourists, and they will never sell to a tourist for a reasonable price, even with hard bargaining.

Finally we humored the driver - it was already dark at this point - and headed off to wherever he was talking about. He stopped outside of a store, and we were invited in, took off our shoes and sat down. The proprietor started in on a long speech about factory blah blah, and offered us water, tea, juice, soda "and please do not ask for 'no thank you' because we do not have that." My bullshit meter went through the roof. Thankfully the factory was closed, and we didn't have to sit through that. But I wasn't in the mood for the speech, so I kept interrupting him to tell him that we only had a few minutes, and then made a big scene about moving my shoes around so I could see them at all times. At least it threw him off guard a little. So we sat as they pulled out beautiful bedcovers, cloths, woodblock prints. Finally they got to the cheapest one, and Chris asked how much, and they offered it for the low, low price of 1400 rupees. We had just seen the same things in the government emporium for 100-300 rupees. At that point I was just highly amused and ready to go. But Chris and Lauren, being Very Nice people, couldn't extract themselves from the guy's unending sales speech. Being Not Very Nice, I walked away.

We ended the day with dinner and beer at a rooftop restaurant, happy with our purchases and now much, much wiser.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Festivals, Concubines and Hassles

Flew into Jaipur last night. It is known as the Pink City.

I took a full-day bus tour, which was led by an incomprehensible tour guide with control issues.
I could never figure out when he was speaking English or Hindi (he switched back and forth) and so I never knew when to pay attention. His English took Herculean efforts of the mind to understand. I managed to identify the words "festival" ("petibal") and "concubine", which he said with surprising frequency. As a result I rarely knew where we were when we stopped.

I met a girl from Mexico City, and she would turn to me and ask the things that she didn't understand, thinking that her English was deficient, and I hadn't understood any of them either.
At one point I think he overheard me and a couple from Atlanta saying that we couldn't understand him, so at every stop after that he would insist that we come right next to him as he talked to the group, so that we would understand. (Note: Proximity was not the problem). Then at one point, after a long incomprehensible lecture about a sundial or something, he turned to me and said "See? You understand now, yes?" To which I replied, "Yes!"

We saw a couple of forts, a giant cannon, the City Palace. I don't remember a lot of pink, which is strange, as this is supposed to be the pink city . Maybe tomorrow when I go shopping I'll see the pink.

I am not so happy about the hassles. It is painful to try to hail an autorickshaw, knowing they will overcharge me, but not knowing what fare I should be bargaining for. And if you turn them down, sometimes they will insult you. Which is interesting. A couple I met from Atlanta told me crazy stories about the railway station in Delhi. There are some seriously complex ruses to get you to buy an overpriced ticket or go to the wrong hotel. Sometimes I think I am being ripped off, but I may not be at all. Maybe I should not sweat it and let myself overpay a little to save the hassle.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mumbai



I liked Mumbai. It reminded me of Nairobi, only less scary.
In Nairobi, crossing the street was like playing Frogger. In Mumbai, it was Frogger mixed with Chicken, and all and a much slower pace. The amount of traffic prevents any rapid movement.

I did a walking tour from my guidebook, on which I saw several important buildings, including the David Sassoon library, founded by a Sephardic Jew, and the Eliyahoo Synagogue, which has a rousing service of about 30 people on Fridays and Saturdays.


I saw the Center for Asiatic Studies (or something), which was founded by the British and excluded "orientals" at the time. I saw the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, which didn't let me see any of the most interesting parts (the extremely expensive rooms, I guess), but the pink stairwell was quite nice.

I appreciated the overcast sky; the lack of sunlight made the humidity just barely tolerable. So far the heat doesn't seem to be worse than New York, but then I've only been here 2 days.


I only got ripped off by one cab driver, who didn't inform me that the shopping mall I wanted to do to (Crossroads) is closed down; instead he drove me 40 minutes through ridiculous traffic to a different mall (the Milleniunm), said it was Crossroads and then wildly overcharged me for the ride. The info desk at the Millenium told me that Crossroads was closed, although I'm still pretty surprised about that. It sounded pretty well established. Anyway, I was mad about the cab until I remembered my country's agricultural subsidies, and then my indignation diminished. Or at least my guilt increased.

I had gotten all excited about seeing some interesting Mumbai clothing designers from the Time Out Mumbai that I have, but I didn't get to see most of them because of the whole Crossroads mall snafu. It was disappointing because they sounded really fun and different, even if I can't afford any of it. I did, however, manage to buy inexpensive bejewelled sandals.

Monday, July 21, 2008

City of Singing Horns

One thing I already love about Mumbai is the car horns. They are a cacophony or a chorus, depending on how you feel about it. I love the feeling of sitting in the back of this tiny low-ceilinged cab, swerving madly and honking wildly while everyone else around us does the same. It feels just like the first scene in The Darjeeling Limited with Bill Murray cramped in a speeding, honking taxi.

The way they drive here is stunning, too. I thought New York and Boston were bad, but they are nothing. I have never in my life been so close to another car, let alone still moving while a hair's breadth apart. Plus pedestrians are crossing in all directions, the car swipes the edges of their clothing as it races by, and the look completely unperturbed. Hats off to their nerves of steel.

video

The city is not nearly as crowded as I imagined. I haven't been out much yet, but I expected choking throngs everywhere. I'm sure I'll find that at the railway station, if I have the cojones to try the train.

India

I'm in India for two weeks. I'll be going to a wedding in Udaipur, Rajasthan, and also traveling around Rajasthan, Mumbai and Delhi. Very, very excited.