Saturday, September 26, 2009

Living India

I am waiting for that day, before I write again when I would begin with “It’s an exhilarating day today” or ‘something unforgettably wonderful happened”. It’s not my standard opening line, and not a very appealing one, but at least it wouldn’t suggest another tirade. I thought India and its citizens deserve some praise from me for letting me in this incredible country. But so far, my experiences here have just been that, incredible.

I blame it partly on my indolence to discover more of the sights, history and culture. I’ve been here for two months, but I can count in my fingers how many places I have visited, a Jain temple in Old Delhi, the Red Fort in Agra and right across it is the Taj Mahal which would have been really inane if I missed going there, and Spencer Plaza (a shopping mall) here in Chennai. On one hand, the fact that I am staying here for two years psyches me up that I have the luxury of time, later not sooner I’ll see enough of India. On the other hand, there are limitations to what I can and am willing to do at the moment.

As I live alone sans the comfort of a washer and a clothesline I spend a good deal of my weekends doing my laundry on an installment basis. I don’t have a flat iron so I hang my clothes in the bathroom without wringing them to avoid crease; the drying process of course takes place only after excess water have completely dripped. That was the culprit why I was unable to have a sleepover in a house by the sea last Saturday. And then by the time I finish washing one batch, it’s time to cook.

Culinary chore takes longer for me here. I have learned to use the pressure cooker after giving up the first time when I couldn’t even seal the lid. A colleague from my NGO came to my flat one day to teach me how to press and turn the lid to close. It never fails to give me a start every time it whistles to let out steam. Four whistles indicate that the rice is cooked, wait for a couple more minutes till all the steam is released before taking the lid off, that is if you don’t want it to blow up on your face. It saves both time and LPG.

That gives me time to stare at the stuff in my fridge. What to cook other than rice is a test of patience and creativity. I have all kinds of masala (spices) in my kitchen but I don’t know which goes with what vegetable. Fish and other seafood are stupendously expensive in this coastal city; something about a dispute with Sri Lanka on territorial waters gives reason for fish sellers to peg a high price on them. And when I’ve had my fill, the sun has risen so high (with a normal temperature of 35 degrees Celsius) and discourages me to venture out as it takes half hour walk to get to the nearest bus stop. Unlike in Manila, the buses here don’t just load and unload passengers anywhere the drivers and/or the commuters please.

The other limitation is that most people taking the buses cannot speak English and the bus signs are in Tamil script. Sure I’ve learned to read and write, but my reading proficiency is of kindergarten level, one letter per 30 seconds. The buses don’t wait for more than one minute at the stops, imagine how far and how long the bus has left before I finish reading Velluchuram written in Tamil. And that’s not even where I am going. My Tamil vocabulary is also restricted to what my language teacher taught me, none helps in asking for directions. I can say, “Spencer Plaza naan po keerayn.” (I am going to Spencer Plaza). And then I get answers in Hindi. Who knows what they’re saying, might be ‘good for you’ or ‘what do I care?”. The good thing is that buses here are number coded, like buses with number 18 on the sign board are going to the High Court and passes Spencer Plaza.

Whenever I go out, I make sure to don western clothes. That makes people nice and helpful to me. I look like a northeastern Indian so if I put on Indian clothes, unless I open my mouth and speak, I’d probably be just ignored. The downside is the cost of fruits and vegetables instantly goes up when I’m the one buying. Last week I went to buy a few pieces of ordinary guava, less than half kilogram which cost me Rs,30. Shucks, you don’t even need fertilizer to make a guava tree bear fruit, and it’s a perennial fruit too. How could it cost that much! My colleagues said they could have gotten it at half the price. Aarrgh.

Still another limitation is I don’t have a local phone SIM yet. Two or three days after arriving to Chennai I bought a local SIM at Rs19 with lifetime validity. I availed of a promo that if I recharged (they call it recharge here, not load) with minimum of Rs50 plus additional Rs123, for one month all calls to the same network within the state is only 0.35 paise per minute and calls to same network outside the state of Tamil Nadu is Rs1 per minute. Not bad at all. Three or four days later, I couldn’t use my phone. Every time I dialed a number I get a recorded message that my line is temporarily suspended for non-submission of documents. Unlike in the Philippines, even the pre-paid SIMs have to be duly registered here; the Indian government beefed up security system after the Mumbai terror attack last year. Prior to that, getting SIM was as easy buying a piece of candy.

So it was that I lacked one document (a local referee) which I immediately produced. Another week passed still my phone wasn’t working. When I went to the retail shop, I was asked to provide 3 more ID cards. Ok, done. Another day, proof of my birthday was needed. I told them they could see the date of my birth in the passport. Convinced, they said I should fill up a form. And then today, they want another photocopy of my passport and visa, to have a proof of my address in Manila. Tsk! I wonder if they make an effort to be obnoxious or is it their gift. I ended up telling them to give me back my documents and I’d go to another network instead.

So you see, still unfamiliar with a huge city (population: 6 million) I dare not go out without a phone handy. However friendly people might be here, compared to Dehliites, there’s a language barrier. The only recourse I have when I wander too far off my intended destination is to call people from my NGO, who by the way would tell me to see this place or that but won’t tell me how to get there. Almost all of them have motorbikes so they don’t really know which bus would take me where. When I got lost the first time I approached the only person who looked like she could speak English, and she really could. When I told her I wanted to go to Spencer Plaza, she answered, “I don’t know, I am also new here.” She could have been as lost as I was but at least we understood each other.

Taking an auto-rickshaw would be far convenient but I’ve already gotten in too many arguments with rickshaw drivers since I arrived here (I got a lot of practice from the taxi drivers in Manila). Auto-rickshaws are tricycles to Filipinos but instead of regulated fixed fare they have meters, which never work. At least that’s what the drivers claim.

I am a person who values my space and privacy. When I was still staying in a hotel and I ordered coffee or tea they would make me wait for half-hour and then either of the three very young room boys, Suresh, Sadish or Ati, would ring the doorbell and forcefully open my door, if I left my door unlocked from inside they would brazenly barge in. And I’m not even telling about my half-consumed Cadbury dark chocolate I left in my room one morning and gone in the afternoon. At least one of them took out my garbage. And oh, I lost a 50-peso bill. Imagine that, what use do they have for it?

Now that I have my own flat, I have to be scrupulous with the things I store in my fridge. When colleagues come to check on me, they would inspect everything, my room, my shelf, what’s inside my fridge. I happened to find dried fish sold here (daing). I don’t know what’s with dried fish but it was news at the office that I bought it. “Oh, you bought dried fish huh”, one woman said. “Yes, she bought dried fish.”, the woman who inspected my fridge replied for me, and then a man who just happened to pass by butted in, “oh you bought dried fish huh.” Not to be mistaken as a grumble, I must add that when I ate the dried fish I felt itchy all over my body. It turned out I have to soak it in hot water for a few minutes and then rinse with tap water before frying it.

So you see, even as I attempt to write about the wonderful things about Incredible India, I can’t now. I am still trying to recover from culture shock. That in restaurants they use just one cloth to wipe sweat, dishes and kitchen counter is another story to tell. At this point, I must remind myself again that I am a volunteer in another Third World country. The term may be obsolete but I like to use it one last time only because it was Jawaharlal Nehru who coined that term. In spite of it all I am happy being here. India is an enchanting place. I know that in time I’ll be able to write about it and begin with “it’s an exhilarating day today in India’.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Battling with Isolation

Cats and I are not friends, but the mosquitoes are my lifetime nemesis. Just when I thought I would have the most restful slumber since I arrived in India now that I have my own flat came this realization that in spite of the apartment being newly constructed, I am not its first occupant. Could it be that I moved here two days late of my original schedule the mosquitoes squatted here and decided they want to stay permanently?

I rushed to the nearest store to get a box of mosquito coils (25 pieces with 4 extra coils free). Never mind if I am contributing to the acceleration of global warming. After all the Indian government itself is not keen on reducing the country’s CO2 emission now or in the immediate future.

As I lay my back on my rickety bed that first Saturday night, an army of my archenemy started attacking me from all fronts. I had plugged in a mosquito repellant in my room but that didn’t work. Almost all night I alternately snoozed and swatted the mosquitoes. Until they became more than a nuisance that I resolved to stay awake and just watched them flit around till I drifted to sleep out of exhaustion. The morning after, I found several smudges of blood on my pillow. Apparently, I managed to retaliate in my sleep, but counted 26 bites in one arm and one leg. The number of course is conservative because I didn’t count the ones on my other leg and arm. Without a mirror in my house I didn’t become aware that I have bites in my face too until colleagues told me Monday morning.

Not far down from where I live is a river clinging to its last breath of oxygen to stay alive. It is home to life forms that don’t swim. Every time I pass there I no longer feign repugnance. The stagnant water gives off a repulsive stench that makes one’s stomach revolt. To nauseate is the next best thing to do. That’s where the mosquitoes are from I surmise.

Recognizing that I have to live with them for the next two years of my life I was better prepared on my second night. I shut all my windows and the lone door, sealed the hole in my kitchen wall (provision for exhaust fan) and lit a coil. I don’t know what those repellants are supposed to do, either kill those mosquitoes or drive them away out of my house. Whatever, they seemed to have worked this time. The army of mosquitoes that was there before was in short supply. But with all the air vents shut I then had to suffer from profuse heat.

But how could I fret about the more than 26 bites that dot my skin? What am I doing talking about this mosquitoes when some volunteers from my batch are still anxious about ever finding shelters they can call home for the next one or two years? At least I already have a home. Well, I have to have an excuse for the unexplained gloom I felt on the second night. I hate to admit but I think I have already entered that phase that most (or all?) volunteers go through at the early stage of service.

I became impatient when the day I had to move to my apartment came and I was still stuck in the hotel room for 2 nights more. Yet when I have settled, which I longed for, I was consumed with mixed of anticipation, isolation, helplessness. Albeit I only have the bare necessities, (a small coffee table with two chairs, a wobbly cot, a gas stove, a fan; the second-hand fridge will be shifted later), my flat now gives a semblance of permanence that elicited a hint of anxiety in me. Unlike when I was in a temporary accommodation, knowing I would leave soon I didn’t have to unpack all my stuff. It was like I could just flee anytime I wanted. I can’t now.

It seemed that that the decision I made 10 months ago was just beginning to sink in. That whoa, I’d live in an unfamiliar territory alone for twenty-four months! The volunteer nearest me is thousands of kilometers from here. It cannot be like the first month, when I was in Delhi, that whenever i experienced dismay for whatever reason the other volunteers were a just a room or two away.

But as I wrote this, it filtered deeper through my senses. Two years is a fleeting permanence. I might be in a place all so new to me, with mosquitoes that have the advantage of the terrain, but I am armed with commitment and determination. There’s no going back now. Time to forge new alliance with the people in the NGO I am now with. And when things become unbearable, I know the volunteers will send reinforcement one way or another. This is the choice I made, a new journey, a new sense of independence, a new battle in life… a new life. I am not allowing the mosquitoes or the sweltering heat defeat me.

Splat!!! another mosquito down. May it rest in peace.