Wednesday, June 28
I never used to be so obssessed with the sky before I went to India, but now that I'm in a place where you can actually see one, I can't get enough of it. I guess it's the sort of thing you don't notice as much till you notice it's not there. So I've really enjoyed looking up here and seeing all manner of skies -- bright blue ones with nary a cloud, partially blue ones and cloud-filled ones. Even the clouds are amazing, full of fluff and feathers and texture. So there's my little ode to the sky. I knew even at the time that I was complaining so bitterly about Patagonia that I would think back longingly on those 360-degree skies too, at some point.
It's been lovely to be back in Brooklyn and see all my near and dear ones, but at the same time it's so disorienting. It's as if I was away for 10 years or else never gone at all. I especially feel the latter, that things have been static here, when I have conversations that I could swear I had fifteen months ago. Mostly these are conversations that involve catch-phrases like "red state, blue state" and "flyover country" and it's a bit weird to think that people are having the exact same political conversations about Bush and Iraq and the "broken system" that they were having before I went away. Didn't anything change while I was gone? Not to get all gung-ho about the place that I'm not in, as is my style, but in India most conversations are a revelation to me, whether they're about politics or something else. Listening to what people have to say about books or the government or how things work is an endlessly fascinating and informative exercise -- maybe I won't feel that way after a while -- but right now everything is really fresh and mind-opening. I'm sort of missing being there.
I never can understand those people who, when you're feeling down and out, tell you to think about how bad other people have it ("think of all the starving children in the third world!") or tell you to go see how bad they have it to cheer yourself up. I mean, what kind of psychopath is going to cheer up by seeing people in a really bad state? If anything, you'll feel like even more of a loser for having the obstinacy to be sad even though you have money, a roof over your head and all that jazz. But now I'm sort of having the reverse of that feeling. Like my mind is sort of boggled by the fact that people who live in wood-floor apartments with lots of sunlight and clothes that cost $200 a piece and step out in the evening to the corner sushi place and spend at least 60 bucks on a meal coexist in a world where people live alongside open drains and wear one sari all week and earn a couple of dollars for doing construction work and maybe a brick falls on them in the process and they lose a limb. How is it that all these lives coexist on the same planet? How did we get to this place? Seems rather unfair, to say the least.
Now that I'm done thinking about the sorry state of the world, I thought I should mention another thing that I like a lot about being here, and that is the elevated state of personal hygiene. Hardly any spitting or public urination for the most part, and almost no nose-picking. Seriously, people in Delhi are always undertaking the most massive excavations at the most inappropriate times. Like the lady at the international airport who was gouging away and then handed me a piece of paper towel to dry my hands on. Um, thanks.
Wednesday, June 14
For reasons beyond my control (vacation, baby) there is going to be very little about Delhi on this page for the next month or so because I will be in Brooklyn. Instead of not writing at all, I guess I'll just write about Brooklyn, though I would have never dreamt about writing about anything to do with New York online before. Too many contenders.
I am ridiculously excited about seeing good old Brooklyn with its sometimes uncharming charm, the chicken-bone littered pavements, the heavy smell of grease that drapes itself around you when you walk past the Dominican diner next to the sushi place on Park and Flatbush, that piss-stained one-eyed man on Seventh Avenue who always yells at my tall friend (why not at me I wonder? must be walking past the wrong eye), "You so fine! Maybe I only got one eye but the other one can still see you fine!"
I'm excited to see all the people I was friendly with but not friends with. Like my historian hairdresser, Mr. Mailboxes etc., Mr. Video Edge, the Korean drycleaner and the Nepali boys who started working at my local supermarket a few months before I left at the end of 2004. I used to try and get a Nepali friend of mine to go and talk them and cheer them up because they were so far from home. Not very excited about the rude Russian cobbler though.
Brooklyn is sort of what I imagined/hoped the United States would be like when I first went to live there when I was eleven. I was sorely disappointed to find that Chicago was not an India that worked better. But Brooklyn, well Brooklyn has all the charm of the third world with the plumbing of the first.
Monday, June 12
I know that complaining about bureaucracy in India is like complaining about the sand in Saudi Arabia (well, I don't really know that -- for all I know Saudi Arabia is much less sandy than it's been here in the past week, but let's let that be). But I do feel a strong need to complain, nevertheless. The warm and fuzzies brought on by a week away have been all but erased by a week spent trying to change rupees for dollars. It took two trips to the Central Bank of India and four to the State Bank of India before I could finally carry out a 40-minute transaction that would let me buy dollars. And this in the country that is touting itself as an economic miracle, wide open to investment, la-di-da.
Seriously, a few run-ins with state-run banks could make a die-hard leftist's blood boil, long for privatization and for all the bank employees, their wives and children to be out on the street in the dog-eat-dog world of true capitalism. People who are on the left in India can only be so, I am convinced, because they have untold minions to mail their letters, go to the bank for them and so on, and never come face to face with the supremely indifferent soldiers of bureaucracy. I don't know why, but when I deal with them and there is no hope in sight for getting what I need to do done, I find myself crying plaintively, "But, I'm the customer!" This plea has actually been effective in the United States, even talking to far away customer service representatives, even with AT&T, the corporation I hate above all others in the world. But here, although I continue to use it as if it were the ace up my sleeve, it has no effect whatsover, except to make people look at me even more blankly.
The most irritating of all the encounters was with the Central Bank foreign exchange desk in the Ashoka Hotel. The counter was, surprisingly, 24 hours and they told us we could change for up to a thousand dollars, no problem. We walked away very pleased and then halfway out the hotel, my dad paused and asked, what if you don't have an Indian passport? So we went back and the man at the counter referred us to the manager. The manager, it turned out, had only been in his job for a week and told us several times, rather proudly, that he knew nothing whatsoever about foreign currency regulations and to go to my own bank. I explained I had just come from my own bank and they don't do foreign currency. Then he asked why I needed dollars if I was a foreign tourist, surely I wanted rupees? I tried to explain that I wasn't a foreign tourist, but an Indian resident, living and working here. He wasn't convinced. Not Indian, ergo tourist was his reasoning.
I tried to explain that India now offers variations on permanent residency and dual citizenship and people in those categories are supposed to get the same rights in most matters as Indian passport holders. Finally he hauled out a brand-new five-kilogram book on currency regulations and began reading it, all the while offering other suggestions based neither on fact nor on the law, most of them involving leaving his office for some other bank immediately. And then he chastised me for asking questions while he was reading, saying he would never find the piece of information he was looking for if I kept interrupting.