Friday, March 28, 2008

The Quest for a Medium Hold with the Dry Look

Having forgotten to pack my Crew Fiber hairstyling product, I walked into the hair salon. I asked the woman sitting behind the counter, "Do you sell Crew hairstyling products?" The woman said, "We only have lawyer here." I looked around, knowing that Indian lawyers have to wear a kind of white neckerchief thing, and usually wear suits. Many of the people were dressed in suits or business-like attire, but I noticed no neckerchiefs...I turned back to the woman and asked, "You only cater to lawyers?" She said, "We only have lawyer here." I asked, "The only people allowed in here are those who argue the law in court?" Again, she said, "We only have laywer," and pointed to a wall, from the top part of which hung a sign in foot-high letters reading "L'Oreal." I smiled, thanked her, and left.

No Generalizations

I don't mean to generalize, but Indians/Mumbaikars/the people I've met here, on the whole, seem to have some behavioral commonalities that Americans might call peculiarities. They'll insist that you come over to their house. You'll have refreshments forced upon you. You'll be offered the best seat. Then you'll be asked your age, asked if you're a virgin, and told that you'll be bald soon. As you look down to try to figure out how to digest it all, the food'll be sitting there, having been served. You'll be told to eat. When you look back up from it, all eyes will still be on you, waiting for answers.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bottled Water, Beggars and the Head Wiggle

Bottled water here is referred to as Bisleri, which was the first brand of bottled water in the area, or at least the first highly successful one. Today, I ordered a Bisleri and got a bottle of Oxyrich, so called because it has “300% more oxygen,” which is good, ‘cuz where else would I get my daily supply of oxygen if not in my drinking water? And, though I can’t quite seem to taste it, I know it’s there, ‘cuz it says so right on the label. Now, 300% more than what is not made entirely clear. Apparently, 300% more than anything that has only ¼ as much oxygen…and that’s so obvious, I don’t know why I ever desired specification.

The beggars are nothing if not persistent. Everyone has told me not to give them anything, that they live outside of any system of oversight, that the children are just being used by adults to earn the adults money, that if it weren’t profitable they’d do something else, that if it isn’t profitable, maybe there’s the small chance that eventually some of them will do find something better. Of course, no one’s saying that sleeping on the street is a nice existence. But your money is probably better used going to some organization to help them than to them directly. But today, walking alone, as an obvious outsider (read "assumed to be a rich tourist"), a woman approached me, walked with me, even put the bottom of a stick with an small Indian flag on it in my hand. It reminded me of the gypsies in Malaga, Spain (although, admittedly, they weren’t as pathetic). Once, when I’d been there a while, and a gypsy lady shoved a sprig of evergreen in my face, I grabbed it, gave her 5 peseta cents (which I think was a little less than an American penny at the time), and kept on walking. A few paces on, she was at my side, indicating that she was not going to accept this trade, and that we would be unexchanging. Susheel, who’s currently sleeping on the floor so that I may take his bed, said something to that effect about the beggars who shove rotating, colorful lit-up spinning-on-a-string toys in your face here – that if you give them less than 5 rupees, they give you a look of disdain. Well, I crossed the street to avoid this flag-waving beggar, only to encounter two little girls, maybe 5 and 3, the older of whom kept grabbing at my hand as I was walking. I found an Indian couple, and followed them through traffic, as I’m far from experienced enough to cross the road at an intersection (I always take at least one, and preferably more, Indian blockers before every traversal), as my current knowledge is based only on what I assume are the traffic laws, and my reflexes, only the latter of which is much help (Actually, as far as I can tell, the rules are these: When in doubt, stop. Above all, never back up.) So I followed this couple, but the children followed me. We weaved between sometimes-moving auto rickshaws, cars, and buses, the couple, followed by me, followed by the 5 year old, followed by the 3 year old. Finally, at the other side of the intersection, when the 5 year old had had enough, I guess, instead of her tugging on my arm, I felt my arm being slapped. It wasn’t hard, but I think that’s only cuz she missed her mark. Not good business practice, but I don’t think she was concerned about future business at that point.

Then I made my way to the cyber cafĂ©, which if it took you 7 steps to cross from one side to the other, is only because you’re very short and/or extremely feeble. And if you could lie down widthwise in the place, it’s only because you’re under six (years old). There was no air conditioning. Therefore, whenever the door opened, the cool breeze from the outside 79-degree weather was quite welcome. Otherwise, it was OK. I had to leave before I was done, however, because the power outage started at 3.
I may have said this before, but, in general, the people seem very nice. No one has been rude to me (at least, that I’ve comprehended (well, save for the beggar girl)). On the train, people are always more than willing to tell me what stop we’re at, and then, later on, to tell me when the stop I’m getting off at is approaching, recommending that I make my way toward the door, etc. Sometimes, since I don’t ride the line that goes to what is called town, or southern (downtown) Bombay, which is the main tourist destination, people ask me what my destination is, assuming I’m on the wrong train, and aiming to direct me where I desire to go. On the street, people always try to help me out when I ask. And so far, there’s been no point when I’ve felt as unsafe as I have at some times, in some places, in the U.S…or Jamaica, of course.I’ve noticed that, the Indians have an interesting (at least, I find it so) way of motioning assent. They shake their head. Not like I’m familiar with – the rotation about the spinal axis that signals dissent or a negative response. Rather, the axis of rotation is perpendicular to the face, and crosses through the nose. Sometimes it’s laterally symmetrical, sometimes it mostly or exclusively sticks to one side of the vertical. Despite knowing how it works, it’s still tough to put faith in it. “Is this Vashi Station?” I ask the guy next to me on the train, pointing in the direction of the upcoming stop. He stares at me amiably and wiggles his head, the top roughly following the circumference of a semicircle that passes through both his shoulders. I know that if he were signaling “no”, he would do it with more passion. I know he’s confirming it. But what I feel is, “He’s confused, possibly just ignorant about the station information, but really quite pleasant (delightful, actually) as he either tries to figure out the answer or expresses his unfortunate lack of knowledge and polite regret

Matrimonial Ads and the Mood in the Train

Saw a sign today on the back of a car – “Driver in training Please keep 30 foot distance.” The driver of the rickshaw I was in gave a good five feet. The motorcycle next to us gave at least two.

I’ve been reading the matrimonial section of the newspaper. They're interesting. For example: “Looking for well-educated Gupta boy in business position from good family for very pretty girl with Master’s degree earning 8 lakh (800,000 rupees) per annum.” Or “seeking beautiful girl with job in United States for wheatish boy with government position. Has three white spots on lower rear-left thigh.”

(…well, I mean, c’mon…that’s not the kinda thing you wanna only find out after you’ve had the week-long wedding, is it?)

Anyway, regarding this “Gupta boy” thing, apparently Gupta is a caste. (I asked, “They’re looking for someone with the name Gupta?” My friends answered, “No, that’s the name of a caste…but yeah, he’ll probably be named Gupta.”

Wheatish means not very light complexioned, but not dark. (Hence, not really really desireable color-wise, but probably not pitch black either.) It’s the kind of thinking that motivates the comment I heard the other day: “He’s handsome, even though he’s dark” (so stated because the speaker thought he might be judged as less handsome than he was because of his skin color, not because she judged him so.) But, actually, a recent survey indicated that most Bombayites don’t have a mating preference when it comes to skin color, and I haven't noticed that anyone cares.

Anyway, having read these matrimonial ads, I’m thinking of making up one of my own: Seeking very beautiful, extremely rich, obscenely well-educated, grotesquely well-mannered girl for U.S. boy. Has white, spot-on body.

Rode the train again the other day. The teenaged boys hang out the doors of a train as any self-respecting dog would, given the opportunity. Holding with one arm onto the door frame, or closest balance pole, they stick their pomaded heads out into the train-created breeze. Inside the general (as opposed to women’s), second-class compartment of the commuter trains, dozens upon dozens of collared-shirt, khaki-pants-wearing men and boys read the paper, sleep, or stare into space. Or into the hair or chest or shoulder of the guy next to them. The arrival of a much-awaited and packed train at a station precipitates an explosion of people through the doors – sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes both. The disembarkers rush to beat the tidal wave of boarders, and the boarders jump on before full arrest of the train to beat their less daring or able competitors and secure a more desirable position.

It’s all a lot like a race. There’s a mad dash and the mutual awareness of competition occurring, but it’s all in good sport. No one’s left with hard feelings afterwards. Most people, except the occasional deep sleeper, goes out of his way to accommodate as much of the fourth person as possible on seats that comfortable fit three (but are only given that luxury during very low-volume times). A window seat provides several advantages – the weather here is hot enough even in the dead of this record-settingly cold winter (The low last week reached 48 F, thus requiring some Mumbaikers to go as far as putting some kind of hat or scarf on the top of their one-long-sleeved-shirt, one-pair-of-khaki-pants-wearing bodies. I have to admit that I even shivered 3 or 4 times, all of them occurring while outside at night in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, while in a no-door-possessing rickshaw going about 25 mph.) Like I said, the weather is usually hot enough even without other people packed around you like sardines. So a seat in general keeps you from being so tightly packed, and a window seat offers a breeze, passing scenery to look at, and something out of which to spit your tobacco juice.

Despite all this competition, the general compartment is a generally nice place, and generally quiet too. Unless you have some group of crazy singers (I experienced it on my first trip only, but it started soon after I got on, and lasted until the train got to the final destination 50 minutes later, complete with a percussionist on a drum.) But it's generally civil in the general compartment (in attitude if not in personal space allotment) and quiet. From what I hear, the ladies’ compartment is often noisy with arguments over seats or general gossip and conversations. Women may ride in the general compartment, but the ladies’ compartments are for women only. Apparently they were made to help the women avoid any unwanted contact with the men, who apparently have no such problem when it comes to the women, as there are no men's only compartments.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Mosquito Wars and the Roads of Mumbai

They have electric-powered anti-mosquito devices here that operate while plugged into an outlet. The advice I received was, “Yeah. Just plug ‘em in, close the door, wait an hour, and the mosquitoes should be done when you get back.”
“Done?” I asked.
“Yeah, man. It kills ‘em. Totally lethal to mosquitos, but totally harmless to us. Luckily.” Well, any doubts I had about the safety of these devices regarding humans were assuaged after several trials of following the usage advice. Plug it in...close the door...wait an hour, two, or a whole day - doesn’t seem to matter. The only thing killing mosquitoes in my room is type-2 diabetes.
It is clear why there are so many Indian taxi drivers in the U.S. What is surprising is that they seem to have stopped there. The auto rickshaw drivers (separate from the taxi drivers who drive cars – not in their driving styles, but in their vehicles, in the frequency with which you encounter their vehicles, in the price of their fares, and therefore in the frequency with which everyone uses each...but I digress) the auto rickshaw drivers here would make great ambulance drivers, because that’s how they drive. Ambulance drivers pass in and out of lanes without a turn signal, using whichever route is the most expeditious. I bet if you asked an auto rickshaw driver if any of the roads here had lanes, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. (The surprising answer is that many major roads do.) But these guys approach an intersection with the awareness of racecar drivers. In the U.S., say, ambulance drivers have to worry about other drivers who aren’t alert. That isn’t a problem here, because if you aren’t alert, you’ve probably been in an accident within 20 meters of your starting location. Same goes for pedestrians. Here, you only have to worry about someone else who thinks their time is more important than yours. More like auto racing than ambulance driving, I guess. The motto here definitely seems to be “If you ain’t rubbin’, you ain’t racin’.” That begs another question. Forget ambulance driving – why haven’t these guys looked into auto racing? The Italians seem to be good at it, and their streets are known for a similar level of pandemonium. Actually, the Indians have thought of that. I read yesterday that there will be some kind of auto-racing training facility, or something like that, built in India, and that the plan is to have an Indian formula one racer by 2012. I find the roads scary, worrisome, and incomprehensible. The autorickshaw driver approachs an intersection (few have traffic lights) quickly but cautiously. Some unclear-to-me but commonly understood law of nature allows one to go while another stops. Sometimes, however, there is a miscommunication, or a difference of opinion, which causes both vehicles to continue toward what, unretarded, must eventually be a collision.
From these situations, I have noticed that the option of last resort, when a driver feels he is almost certainly bound for a collision, is to stop. Right there. Never mind that the collision is with a car approaching from the right, and that you are stopping in the middle of his path. I guess the logic is that he can then swerve around you, instead of having to guess your speed and whether or not you will begin to slow down or even swerve yourself, to avoid something in front of you. Anyway, so far, when I’ve been in such situations, the other driver has stopped as well, so that then my driver and the other one just accelerate and pick up from there, and everyone's happy.
Another interesting thing is the turn signal. Not a garish blinking light on the front and back corner of an autorickshaw – you’re happy to get one that has headlights – and certainly not those crazy things I started to see in America a few months before I left – those additional turn signals implanted in the side-view mirrors. No, the auto rickshaw turn signal is a discrete partial extension of the hand out the side (and it’s to the side to which you are turning, which is contrary to the bicycle-signalling rules I learned, and impossible in a car, of course, because you’d have to be able to reach across the car if you were going to turn that way). No need to be overly enthusiastic about it. Just a little hand signal, like a demure biddor at an expensive auction, with the hand only extended out of the imaginary window of the auto rickshaw a couple of inches past the wrist or so. (Truly, any more might be hazardous to the driver’s health.)
However dangerous auto rickshaw riding can seem sometimes, I still often have the urge to get in one, point right out the side (there are no windows) and tell the driver, "the other side of the street," because that's one of the grandest adventures available in this city. Though old women and dogs seem to be rather adept at it, I'm still pretty sure it's the most dangerous thing ever. As I've said elsewhere, I usually try to find an Indian blocker and walk downtraffic from him or her (preferrably her, as I feel more confident that I'll be able to keep up). The rule of crossing the street is, never go back. Sprint past swerving auto rickshaws, walk slowly and confidently in front of buses, or stop dead in your tracks in a busy intersection – but don’t step back. (this is what I was told, and it seems to me good advice) the assumption is that no one’s going to actually retreat – this is Bombay, not Chattanooga – so vehicles will swerve to your rear to get around you. You might ask why I don't just go to an intersection and cross with the pedestrian signal at a crosswalk. You might also ask why we have to worry about crime when we have already written down the laws. However, traffic signals remain, the vast majority repeatedly blinking their unnoticed ritual without fail, their faith either an admirable or pitiable thing; having been rendered vestigial structures of some aberrant evolution, they nonetheless soldier on, perhaps as much out of a need for purpose as a desire for usefulness. Much like the appendix. Or the Pittsburgh Pirates.
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