Monday, December 31, 2007

Christmas in India

Thanks to all for your happy Christmas wishes. I had a great holiday here in India. I missed things, of course (like family and the Messiah sing-a-long and Grandma's chocolate mint brownies [that I would have eaten this year since I'm not vegan anymore!!!]), but I think this will truly go down as one of my best Christmases. It was refreshingly uncommercial (except for the creepy skinny Santa in a pale-faced mask at the bank), and, as it is not widely observed here, everyone that did celebrate Christmas seemed to do so with a closer eye on the true significance of the holiday. I participated in a hilarious Christmas program at church, went to midnight mass at an Anglican church, spent time with friends, and was fed more food than I have ever eaten in a 24 hour period. I think I'll have South Indian food every Christmas from now on to remind me of the hospitality and generosity I was shown by the wonderful people here. (Mom, I know you always have tamales on Christmas; can we have tamales AND masala dosa next year?)

I know I have a pretty mixed audience on this blog, but I'm hoping you'll indulge me in a bit of reflection about what being in India for Christmas meant to me spiritually. You can skip to the pictures if you're not interested.

I've always loved the Biblical Nativity story but somehow being in a poor, dusty, hot country on Christmas gave me a new appreciation for some of the details of the story. For example, did you know it is 97 km (60 miles) from Nazareth to Bethlehem - the distance that Joseph and Mary traveled to pay taxes in the final stages of Mary's pregnancy? To take a BUS on the rocky, dusty, buggy roads here can be uncomfortable; I can't imagine what it would have been like on foot or by animal on the primitive roads that existed two thousand years ago. And speaking of animals? They stink. A lot. The whole city smells awful, partly because there are cows (and dogs and goats and chickens and cats and camels and enormous rats) roaming around as they please, pooping wherever they feel like it. To give birth among a bunch of them and their poop? Gross. By the way, living in a place with breathtaking economic inequalities, it's easy to observe that money makes things happen. If you can pay you can get what you want because people with less money than you will get it for you. That Joseph and Mary were relegated to a stable speaks not ONLY to the fact that there was no room in the inn, but also that they were poor. If they had had enough money, they could have gotten whatever they needed. That's just the way it works when some people have money and some people don't. Lastly, I was walking home at dusk one night last week and observed a number of destitute families leaving the construction sites at which they work as day laborers, headed for the makeshift shacks along the side of the road in which they sleep at night. Whole families were in transit, weary moms clutching babies, old men and women carrying heavy tools, filthy children (their dirty faces belying the fact that they were not in school but shoveling sand all day), and men that looked like they were too tired to take another step. The thought hit me that these families - poor, dark-skinned, tired, shuffled from place to place - probably look a lot like Joseph & Mary's young family looked, on the run in the Middle East for some number of years with at least one small child in tow. Anyway, it was interesting to have a new look at a story that tends to get sanitized, whether through religious idealism or irreligious disinterest in the origins of the holiday.

Okay, that's enough pontificating for now. Here are some photos of our Christmas program.

This is Elder Janga, as Jesus, and Bobby (in my bathrobe), as the callous sinner who rejects the message that the shepherds offer and then, after having been blinded in a horrible accident, meets Jesus thirty years later, repents and is healed. What, you don't remember that part of the Bible? That's probably because they added it. Anyway, it seems like the TYPE of thing Jesus would do, right? :)

None of my pictures from that night turned out very well, so excuse the poor quality, but this is Aishwarya, an 11-year old girl whose family I joined for dinner #1 on Christmas Day.

These people are roughly my age; here they are performing a little "lessons & carols" (I was at the piano). From left to right is Deepa, Saritha, Chennaswami, Mega, Prebhu, Manuel, Charles, and Pinto.

I cannot get over how beautiful Indian people are. These teenaged girls sang a couple of Christmas songs during the program. (I teach piano lessons to the one on the right, Subashini.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Scrabble will always be my favorite sport

I'm a little behind, folks. Let's see if I can't catch you up on some noteworthy moments from December. There was a cricket match in Bangalore that I attended with some friends. In case you know as little about cricket as I did, it is a little like baseball except that (and you thought a baseball game was long...) one game lasts for FIVE DAYS and your ticket comes with lunch and tea coupons, a fact which amused me to no end. I went to the first few hours of the first day of the match between India and Pakistan. Given that the contenders were India and Pakistan I was halfway hoping for a good riot to spice things up, but no such luck*. We sat on plastic chairs and waved signs and watched the game and yelled for India, and that was pretty much it. Oh, and we got on television. And I'm pretty sure India won.

*For a little primer on Indo-Pakistani relations, and why I was hoping for a riot**, go here:

**I wasn't really hoping for a riot. Riots are bad.

This is what the field looks like...

This is an infamous Pakistani fan who travels to all the team's games...

This is my friend Lizzie and I holding up the witty sign (made by Abhilash) that got us on television...

And these are the true India fans, Shash and Abhilash...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why you shouldn't take the elevator in a developing country

Here's a funny thing about Bangalore. It's modernizing rapidly, but there are still so many old customs that you see amusing things like a horse-drawn cart cutting off a luxury car, or a Buddhist monk in saffron robes walking down the sidewalk talking on his cell phone. (I have to do a better job of carrying my camera around...sorry.) Or, you can find some convenient modern devices and technologies but then the infrastructure isn't reliable enough to keep them working so you end up with things like daily power outages, or horrible traffic jams because a lot of people can afford cars now but the government hasn't caught up with good roads or parking. OR your apartment building conveniently installs an elevator and then it breaks down and you get stuck in it. That is what happened today.

I never take the elevator, right? I live on the fourth floor and I like the bit of extra exercise. Today, however, I had heavy bags and the stairs were all slick because it rained so I did. Anyway, I'm not sure if the power went out or the elevator just up and died, but all of a sudden it stopped between the second and third floors. It wasn't that far; I knew I could safely jump provided I could get the door open, but the door wasn't budging. So I knocked and banged and yelled for a while, but no one came. Then I tried kicking the door down and that didn't work either. So then I called the 1-800 number posted in case of "elevator breakages", but it turned out to be more like a 1-900 number if you catch my drift. So then I sat there quietly and tried to think of a new plan and in the meantime called my parents just to say hello and laugh at the absurdity of the situation. I accidentally called too late, though, and woke my dad up, and we had the following conversation.

Anna: Hi Dad.
Dad: (groggy) Hi sweetie.
Anna: Oh oops, I called you too late, huh? Sorry about that.
Dad: It's okay.
Anna: I'm stuck in an elevator.
Dad: That's nice. I'm going to go back to bed now.


So then I sat there quietly some more and then FINALLY noticed this little lever jammed between the elevator and the door way up high. Praying that it was the "open the door" lever, not the "release the elevator and send it plummeting down to the basement" lever, I gingerly pulled it and was in luck. The door opened and I and my bags jumped down to the second floor and took the stairs the rest of the way up.

Moral of the story: Next time you're stuck in an elevator, don't call my dad. Just pull the lever.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


I just woke up in the middle of the night after a weird dream, and am now having trouble going back to sleep. Sometimes I don't sleep that well here, which is odd for me because, as some of you probably know, I am notorious for being able to fall asleep anytime anywhere. I think it's because the ambient noise here is SO different than anything I'm used to. When I'm up and awake it doesn't bother me, but at night my brain doesn't quite know what to make of it. I had never thought much about the different sounds of different places, but I'll tell you what: Even if I was blind I would know I was in a different country. Well, there's the smell - an aromatic amalgam of sewage and exhaust fumes - but besides that just sounds so different. Right now, in the middle of the night for example, the stray dogs are going nuts. There are stray dogs everywhere here (the doc at the travel clinic told me that 95% of them have rabies...and then she told me that the rabies vaccine was $800). They are usually really mellow during the day. I don't try to make friends with them or anything, but I don't mind walking right by a pack of them. At night, though, they go crazy and sometimes it sounds like they're fighting with each other.

Roosters start crowing at about 4:30 and don't let up for a while. Another new sound is the muezzin from the neighborhood mosque which calls its worshippers to prayer five times a day. I can reliably hear it at 5 am, if I'm up, and sometimes I hear snatches throughout the day if there is a lull in the traffic noise. (The mosque pictured here, by the way, is not the one closest to me. This is the Jamia Masjid, Bangalore's most impressive mosque which was built in 1940 and can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers!)

At about 6 am, the traffic starts up, which means the normal rumbles and engine-sounds and screeching of brakes, but which also means the HORNS. People use their horns here like people in the US use their turn signals - I'm not kidding. Anytime they pass someone or turn a corner, or want to let a pedestrian know that they'll be whizzing by, they lay on the horn. Different vehicles have different sounding horns too, which is funny. Trucks and buses make these low, deafening blasts, cars have a really screechy horn, motorbikes have a high-pitched, almost musical series of beeps, and autorickshaws make a sound as though the devil himself is running his fingernails down a chalkboard. I guess this is so - if you get hit - your dying thought can be, "That bloody [fill in the blank]!" The other funny and noisy thing about traffic is that vehicles play a song when they back up. All day long I walk around hearing snatches of Fur Elise and American Patrol, which never fails to make me laugh. I have to say, though, the only close calls I've had with cars (besides one that happened before I understood how to cross a street), were with ones that were reversing out of a driveway or parking lot, so maybe they're onto something. I still maintain, however, that just because your car is blaring "Dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me..." doesn't mean you don't have to use your rearview mirror when you're backing up.

Anyway, at 6:30 the security guard starts coughing so forcefully that every morning I'm afraid I'm going to walk out of the apartment and find him keeled over with his lungs hanging out of his mouth. At about 7, the vendors noisily open for business. There's an old woman who sells brooms and wanders from house to house, hollering at the gate. There's a kid who yells something in a language I don't recognize. I'm not sure what he sells. And at about the same time, the workers at the construction site just adjacent to my apartment complex wake up and start pounding. At this point, traffic is in full force and the city is awake. It only gets progressively noisier throughout the day, and sometimes I can hear explosions, which I tell myself are merely firecrackers that people saved up after Diwali.

Someone told me that the first time I go back to the US it will seem so quiet that it will feel a little unnerving. I don't doubt that. A funny memory that's come back to me a few times since I've been here is that in the middle of the night at my parents' house in Bellevue you can hear the soft beeping of the crosswalk signal that's about a quarter mile away. I'm not kidding that here you wouldn't be able to hear that sound AT the intersection. Anyway, it's been interesting to consider that different places have different "sound profiles" and to compare Bangalore to other places I've lived. And I guess it's no wonder that I can't sleep sometimes. :)