19 December 2008

Thinking Time

I have had a lot of time lately to think. In fact, it is the first time in my life that I have had this much time to do nothing but sit and think. See, at home, and even while traveling – I am a time occupier. I like to always be doing stuff when I'm alone– reading usually, or watching TV or a movie, talking on the phone, sightseeing etc. Not that I obsessively fill my time - I do relax. But it involves a magazine, or at the very least poking at one of my cats until it wakes up and reciprocates affection. I NEVER sit in silence and just....sit there. In fact, the very idea makes me feel fidgetty and irritated. When we were teenagers, I would ask Heppy “Whatcha doin?” and when she would reply “just sitting here smoking” I would be like “ok – obviously you've lost your mind – I'm coming over.”

Now I know why for all these years I have been avoiding doing nothing. See, when I am busy with a task I am often thinking about something else on a mental “back burner” letting an idea stew away and become fully formed. Sometimes my ability to think about 2 things at once crosses into my conversations, in a manner that my mum's BFF calls “Jessica Doublespeak.” It is my one thing. My thing I am better at than other people. It is forming opinions, and then expounding on them.

On this trip, I have had LONG stretches of time in which there is literally nothing to do but think. I can't read – because the road is too twisty and I'll vomit. I can't watch TV, because its all shreiking Hindi news. I can't talk or write, because everyone is asleep and the lights are off. And I have nothing important to worry over – no work woes, or financial troubles, no friend drama or relationship problems – nothing but minor malaria scares and sari comparison shopping. So my brain – the brain that tends to overthink to begin with – my brain rejoices and starts going at 100 km a minute.

I have thought about absolutely every single moment of my life in the last 2 and a half months. Every friendship ended, every party attended, every outfit worn (that one is good for some cringing.) Every fight has been replayed, and if any of you care to rehash an issue – now is the time, because I have a comeback. It is the weirdest thing – synapses are firing and the strangest memories are coming to the surface. Good ones, yes – but mostly embarrassing ones. I have relived every single uncomfortable moment of the last 15 years and found that for most of them I can now laugh. And for some I feel exactly the way I did when they happened – toe curlingly mortified. (I know you all want me to dish and go into detail – but thats for another blog.)

I also like to mentally compile lists when I have a lot of time to think. Top 5 favourite transgendered characters/people in entertainment. (JD Samson, Franknfurter, Hedwig, Antony, Amanda Lepore. I almost put Austin Scarlet in there, but I think he's just fancy.) Top 5 things I hate about people: lack of humour, no ability to make fun of themselves, close together eyes, too agreeable, no motivation.Top 5 things I love about India: the food, the chaos, the colours, the cows and the blinky lit-up Hindu gods everywhere. Top 5 things I hate about India: the lack of customer service, the irrationality, the attitude toward stray dogs, that there are children begging and a space program in the same country, and Punjabi sweets. I guarantee that if you ask me a top 5 about anything, I will have already thought about it at some point. I probably have in the last 3 months, even....

I met a 61 year old babe (there is no other way to describe this red-haired vixen from Florida) in the Himalayas, and she has been everywhere over the last 40 years. Her passports look like the stuff of dreams. And she said to me “Traveling doubles your lifespan. Time moves slower – life goes slower – when you're traveling.” I get that now.

I guess this is what makes travel what it is. The independance of travel and the experience of other cultures are integral – and I guess only a certain type of person obsessively needs to see every corner of the globe – but it is all this thinking that makes a person different. When people say “you'll grow – you'll change – you'll mature (eep!)” its not because a glimpse of the fucking Eiffel Tower/Taj Mahal/Macchu Pichu is going to impact your brain and make you a better person. Its not going to decide what you want to do with your life, or make you a better friend, or become a sage advice giver. But all that time spent getting to those places - on a bus/train/donkey cart, it certainly will – all that time. Trust me – there is more time than I ever imagined.

02 December 2008

No Answers in Mumbai, Just a Question.

I am used to a backpacker lifestyle - staying at dodgy guesthouses, eating a mix of local food from cheap roadside stands and the comforting and pervasive fruitshake/granola/fried rice hippy stuff geared to us, traveling on roach and rat infested trains and buses with a baby balanced on my knee and an old woman sharing my seat. But not right now - Sean is working for a large Indian firm and we are tucked away in a wealthy gated enclave for 2 months. I am reluctant to leave the area due to the massive terror attack on Mumbai - so I am sort of in limbo.

As I sit here with a beautiful South Indian woman cleaning my floors, on her hands and knees and with her husband staring at me curiously from the door, I am a typical wealthy Indian. I live in an apartment that, though modest, is clean and has AC, TV and hot water - even a washing machine. I drink coffees from Moxxa - mochas that cost 2.50 CAD - one fifth the average monthly wage here. I am wearing Pepe brand jeans that cost what this woman makes in 3 months. Later, I will go meet Sean and have a leisurely supper - enjoying a variety of Indian dishes and beers priced for upmarket clientele. I will give the leftovers to the dogs on the streets and retire to my comfortable bed that this woman has dressed in clean sheets that are no match for the lovlieness of the sari on her back. She wants to know my name, but coyly evades my question when I ask hers. Welcome to the living, breathing example of the wealth disparity that you know is out there, that you see on CNN and CBC and BBC but that doesn't touch the West. I feel like a monster.

But am I? This is not a Westerner thing - the other apartments in this building are filled with upper class Indian families - high caste, no doubt - but Indian nonetheless.The coffee shops and hotels nearby are frequented by locals - not the goras. Yet when we hop in a chaffeured car and head to another clean and safe part of the city, the filthy and sickly children that swarm the car, who are dressed in rags and with non-intentional dreadlocks - who tap on all of the windows and motion to their stomachs and mouths, shouting "10 rupees - 10 rupees!!!" with frantic desperation before your car pulls away - they are Indian too. We are instructed by everyone "DO NOT GIVE MONEY TO THE CHILDREN." And in my brain I know it is true - their parents will drink the money away, and use the success to justify keeping their children begging on the streets. And even I get frustrated with the children - I told a 4 year old girl in Jaipur to "Fuck Off" after she firmly grabbed my crotch - so I can only imagine the desensitization that occurs after a lifetime of living with them pulling at your clothes and trying to attach themselves to your leg. Some upper caste Indians tell me that this is what they want - that the lower castes like the streets and make good money, and even if they could afford to send the children to school they wouldn't. My brain agrees, my stomach and heart scream no. Scream in the most gutteral way I have ever have.

People like the beautiful maid here are not beggars. They do not send their children out to the streets - but they do live in what we would call slums. Shanty towns made of corrugated metal, tarpaulins and tent pegs - tens of thousands spread across only a few acres, surrounded by ditches that are used as latrines. The smell alone can be blinding as you drive by. I have not seen the inside of these slums, but from all accounts they are vast communities of people helping one another in a way that we in the West have forgotten how to do. The people who emerge from the neigbourhoods are clean and neat and dressed proudly, and are the envy of the families that actually live on the sidewalks - the beggars. They would love a spot in a slum.

I ask you - Can you imagine a life where your greatest dream for your children, the most you dare to hope for, is that they can earn a highly coveted spot in a slum?

Sitting here still like a feudal lord in my apartment that overlooks a golfcourse. Surrounded on all sides by slums filled with people barely making it work. Those slums then surrounded by sidewalks and medians teeming with people who can't afford to live in a shanty. Surrounded then by greedy Indians living like Westerners, and greedy Westerners living like kings. You can buy a child here for less than what you make in a day at work in Canada. You can also spend a grand on one meal. The 3 main classes are easy to see everywhere you go. In Pushkar, standing side by side, were the clean, pigtailed and pinafored students with book bags and spare rupees to buy a snack, the smooth talking dusty yet well-
fed boys aggressively selling trinkets in English, Spanish, German - and then they were the shoeless little girls holding a diaperless baby in each arm.

I once took a course in University in "Peace and Conflict Studies." I was really excited for the course, because I thought it would be all about war and peace and treaties and diplomacy, terrorism and doctrines. But the entire curriculum was based on water and food allocation. I struggled to see the connection between the people whom I viewed as terrorists and an essay about NAFTA and tomato production, the women and their communities who were being exploited by the West in order to provide cheap food. The equation seems to be "desperately poor people + Western need = ideal conditions for
exploitation and profit." One further step that the West doesn't count on is "= anger, rage and conflict." There is the link.

So is it any wonder why the Taj Hotel, the Oberoi Trident (owned by Hilton) and Leopold's cafe were shot up by terrorists this week? Leopold's is an institution - a backpacker's heaven for drinking beer and meeting beautiful hippies from around the world and mingling with young sexy Indians who have money to blow. The Taj is one of the world's most luxurious hotels - 500 bucks a night minimum. And 20 Pakistanis stormed in and shot the place up - why? Why target places where Westerners and mega millionaire Indians were guaranteed to be relaxing? Do you think they hate us because we come from democracies? Because we like to show our cleavage and shoulders? Because we don't believe in Allah?

Fuck that. They don't care what the fuck we do with our free time. They don't care that we engage in activities that they find distasteful or immoral. They don't care that we drink beer and flirt. They care that we spend more money on a meal than most people will make in a few months - sometimes a year. They care that we are polluting the planet to a degree that it cannot recover from. That we're using all of their drinking water to wash our feet and clothes and dogs. They may use religion as an excuse - but if this disparity - this Passionate Eye documentary subject that none of us know shit about - if it didn't exist than no one would care. Terrorism would cease. People are hungry and dirty and thirsty, and they see us burning through piles of money and it makes them mad. It would make you mad too.

So what am I to do? If I refuse the South Indian woman tomorrow and tell her that I will clean the apartment myself, then she has no work. If I pay her a huge sum, I disrupt the local economy in an unfair way - like insisting to pay 10 times the market value for something. What about the dirty children who come to the car window or stare up into my eyes? Do I shower them with rupees knowing full well that they will hand all of the money to their addicted parents, and hope that some makes it into their distended bellies? Do I hand out a bit of food - knowing that it will never be enough for the inevitable swarms of people that flock to me? Do I argue with every traditional high caste Indian I meet, pissing them off with my lack of respect and showing a huge swath of hypocrisy? I am drawing a blank. I have no answers. And I will probably drink another mocha tomorrow.